Diversity Is Strength! It's Also…AG Gonzales' Mexican Mores

[See also Is Mexico's Constitution of Blood Coming Here? ]

Next Monday, September 17, Alberto Gonzales steps down as the first Mexican-American U.S. Attorney General.

This is a relief. Gonzales was also, if not the worst, then certainly among the worst to hold that office.

But might there be a connection between these two facts? A brief consideration of Gonzales's career, with reference to Mexican politics, suggests that there could indeed be such a connection.

Gonzalez, the grandson of probable illegal immigrants—as he himself has admitted, or is it "boasted"?—was born to a Catholic family in San Antonio and raised in the town of Humble, Texas, where his father worked construction and later in a rice mill. A diligent as well as an intelligent pupil, Gonzales was an honors student in high school, after which he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for a four-year stint. Following his military service, he entered Rice University where he earned a B.A. in Political Science, compiling a record of sufficient distinction to win him acceptance to the Harvard Law School, which accorded him the degree of Juris Doctor in 1982. Gonzales then returned to Texas, where he went into private practice with the firm of Vinson and Elkins, becoming a partner. He became an active member of the community and a pillar of respectability in Houston, taking his place on various local boards and commissions and earning public recognition for his efforts.

So far, so good. Up to this point, Gonzales's is the classic American success story of a poor immigrant boy made good by dint of discipline, hard work, and good character—a twentieth century Horacio Algero of the Borderlands.

Here, however, the fable begins to differentiate, as George Ade liked to say.

Gonzales's career took a definitive—in retrospect, a fateful—turn when George W. Bush, recently elected Governor of Texas, hired him as special advisor on border issues and relations between the State of Texas and the Republic of Mexico, and later as the governor's general counsel.

Since then, Alberto Gonzales has worked almost solely for George Bush, at that man's pleasure and discretion.

Subsequently, the Governor appointed him Secretary of State of Texas, and next as a judge on the Texas Supreme Court. In 2001, Gonzalez followed his mentor to the White House, where he served as White House Counsel until 2005, when President Bush, with the advice and consent of the Senate, made him Attorney General of the United States.

It is clear from this sketch that Alberto Gonzales's public career owes everything to the patronage of George W. Bush.

Patronage, of course, is a notorious and abiding feature of Mexican politics, with which this descendant of illegal immigrants appears to have been wholly comfortable. Bush the Younger is famed for his insistence on what is most politely termed loyalty in his subordinates. His relationship with his Hispanic protegé from Humble was no exception.

Indeed, observers have noted in Alberto Gonzales an eagerness to supply Bush, both as Governor and as President, with pleasing legal advice, no matter whether it is the correct advice or not. In his capacity as counselor to the Governor, Gonzales worked successfully to have Bush excused from jury duty on a drunk driving case—an episode that surfaced during the 2000 campaign when it came to light that Bush, in answering the questionnaire mailed to prospective jurors, had failed to disclose his own DWI conviction in 1976. There has also been speculation that, as counsel, Alberto Gonzales was remiss in reviewing clemency requests with the result that, during his tenure in office, more executions were carried out in Texas than in any other of the fifty states.

Patronage and callousness toward human life and toward justice, though emblematic features of Mexican political life, of course are hardly unique to it: Certainly the history of the United States includes numerous examples of both. And so it is particularly in Alberto Gonzales's record as White House Counsel and U.S. Attorney General that we may perceive a powerful inclination, as unquestioning as it is instinctive, toward an authoritarianism that is no part of the historic American political tradition—though it remains very much a part of the Mexican one.

Not to put too fine a point on the matter, Alberto Gonzales, during his tenure with the Bush Administration, seems never to have met a piece of restrictive or anti-democratic legislation, usually enhancing the power of the Executive Branch, he didn't like.

Executive Order 13233, drawn up by Gonzales and promulgated by Bush in November 2001, amended The Freedom of Information Act to restrict access to the records archived by former U.S. presidents. From the beginning, Gonzales was an ardent supporter within the Administration of the USA PATRIOT Act, strongly resisted by a wide array of opponents—including many conservative critics—for its infringement upon civil liberties.

The infamous Presidential Order authorizing the trial of suspected terrorists by military tribunals was also Gonzales' work, as was the equally controversial memo early in 2002 which concluded that Article III of the Geneva Convention had been superseded by events (but not apparently by law), thus rendering protections accorded to captured combatants inappropriate to the cases of apprehended Taliban and Al-Quaeda fighters. (Gonzales wanted to deny prisoners, among other things, such amenities as commissary privileges and scrip.) Extant military regulations and presidential instructions were, Gonzales insisted, sufficient to ensure that the principles of Geneva would be honored. Moreover, he objected, adherence to imprecise language in Article III ("Outrages upon personal dignity", "humiliating and degrading treatment," etc.) might easily be used by hostile governments to subject military leaders and even civilian officials to the War Crimes Act of 1996—an eventuality that is, of course, wholly imaginable. [Detainee Abuse Charges Feared Shield Sought From '96 War Crimes Act By R. Jeffrey Smith Washington Post, July 28, 2006]

Meanwhile, the Justice Department and the FBI have been accused of abusing, on Gonzales's watch, the PATRIOT Act by retrieving unwarranted information pertaining to American citizens, and the NSA of spying on them, also without warrant.

And it was Gonzales' attempt to reauthorize the renewal of the latter activity that led to the now famous scene in the hospital sickroom of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, in which White House Counsel Gonzales allegedly attempted to persuade the disoriented patient to sign off on a renewal of the program in the presence of James B. Comey, Ashcroft's acting AG.

An attempt by the Senate to get to the bottom of this incident resulted in Gonzales's testifying for four hours before the Judiciary Committee on July 24, 2007. In his sworn testimony, the Attorney General flatly denied Comey's account, insisting that the hospital visit concerned "other intelligence activities," and not the NSA plan.

The widespread, and frankly expressed, disbelief Gonzales provoked from his listeners on this occasion recalled the skepticism drawn by his testimony regarding the firing of seven U.S. Attorneys given to Congress earlier in the year. It impelled a group of Democratic Senators to call for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the matter further.

Gonzales' behavior under oath before Congress and two Senate committees speaks volumes about the man's respect for the rule of law in a free country of laws.

Most shocking of all, however, is the Attorney General's apparent ignorance of the basic elements of that law, as suggested by his denial, in the course of an exchange with Senator Arlen Specter on January 18, 2007, of the constitutional right to Habeas corpus:

Gonzales: The fact that the Constitution—again, there is no express grant of habeas corpus in the Constitution. There is a prohibition against taking it away. But it's never been the case, and I'm not a Supreme—

Specter: Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. The Constitution says you can't take it away, except in the case of a rebellion or invasion. [By illegal immigrants, perhaps?—CW.] Doesn't that mean you have a right of habeas corpus, unless there is an invasion or rebellion?

Alberto Gonzales, it is true, has only been trying to aid, abet, and please his apparently quintessentially American boss, the President of the United States. And others in the Administration, most notably Vice President Cheney, the man from Wyoming. (But Alger Hiss came from a background very similar to Bush's.) Even so, America's experience with its "First Hispanic Attorney General" seems not to augur well for tomorrow's involvement in American politics by the children and grandchildren of today's illegal Mexican immigrants—a prospect welcomed by some (including especially the government of Mexico) and feared by many others (including me).

It may be, on reflection, that multicultural studies in America's schools might cut both ways.

Perhaps, in addition to learning the history of the American Revolution, the American young should be reading about the history of the lawless, bloody, barbaric Mexican Revolution (circa 1910 to 1928).

That could be a real eye-opener for everybody concerned.

Granted, Alberto Gonzales is no Pancho Villa. But Pancho Villa was no George Washington, either.

Chilton Williamson Jr. [email him] is the author of The Immigration Mystique: America's False Conscience and an editor and columnist for Chronicles Magazine, where he writes The Hundredth Meridian column about life in the Rocky Mountain West. His latest book is The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works That Impact Today's Conservative Thinkers.