Former AG and presidential counsel Alberto R. Gonzales recalls his time at the White House
On September 11, 2001, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, alongside other presidential advisors and national security experts, joined President George W. Bush in the study adjacent the Oval Office. They engaged in discussions about their individual experiences on that fateful day and collaborated on crafting the president’s address to the nation later that evening.
During the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society’s Annual Dinner in Tallahassee on January 18, Gonzales recalled the moment, stating he vividly remembers asking the president, “What can we do to help you?” Bush responded with simplicity, “Just do your job. If you do your job, and I do my job, we will be as good as we can be.”
It’s a philosophy Gonzales has employed throughout his long and varied legal career. The nation’s first Hispanic attorney general, Gonzales served under President Bush from 2005 to 2007. He previously served as Texas secretary of state and was later appointed to the Texas Supreme Court by then-Gov. Bush in 1999. He went on to serve as White House counsel before being sworn in as the 80th U.S. attorney general. He is currently the dean and Doyle Rogers distinguished professor of law at Belmont University College of Law in Nashville.
Florida Supreme Court Justice John Couriel sat down for a “fireside chat” with Gonzales as part of the FSCHS’s “A Supreme Evening 2024.” Gonzales and Couriel each graduated from Harvard Law School before going on to serve as state supreme court justices, and each of their careers led them to roles within the U.S. Department of Justice.
Couriel, the son of Cuban immigrants, was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2020. Before he became Florida’s 90th justice, Couriel worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Couriel asked Gonzales about former President Bush.
“What you see of him publicly is the way he is privately,” Gonzales said. “Very consistent, average in terms of no pretenses, wonderful as a client — even though his positions as a governor and, of course, as a president — he is much more than a client.”
Gonzales said he had only met Bush a few times before he went to work for him. He thought he was a “good guy,” but never thought Bush could defeat Ann Richards, the popular incumbent governor.
“Of course, he won and about two weeks after the election one of my partners came to me and said, ‘I got this call from George Bush and he wants to know whether or not you would be interested in being his counsel.’”
When Gonzales went to meet with Gov. Bush in Austin, Texas, about the job he asked, “Why me?”
Bush said in 1988 when his dad, George H.W. Bush, became president and wanted to bring some minorities into the administration, he knew Gonzales had turned him down.
“The truth of the matter is I wanted to stay in my firm, because they had never had a minority partner and I wanted to make partner,” Gonzales said. “Fast forward to Austin, Bush says, ‘You turned down my old man for a job.’ He says that’s how I got on his radar.”
Gonzales says he tells his students at Belmont that if they think it’s hard to tell their parents they got a ‘C’ in a contracts class, imagine having to go into the Oval Office to tell the president that the Supreme Court ruled that the advice his legal advisors gave him in terms of the scope of his presidential authority in the War on Terror was wrong.
The president’s response, Gonzales said, was, “That’s what the courts are for. They are there to tell us whether we are doing the right thing or not. If they are with us, we continue on. If they rule against us, then we change course.”
Gonzales said he is often asked which job was more fun, being the president’s counsel or serving as attorney general. He said being the AG is incredibly hard, as “every decision you make as attorney general you are going to be criticized for whether you are right or wrong.”
Gonzales said his best job was serving as White House counsel where every day he got to advise the most powerful person in the world and it was “someone I know from my days in Texas, and someone I respected and I considered a friend — it just does not get any better than that.”
Couriel asked about the elder President Bush and to what degree his son relied on his father as a model.
“He was a constant figure, but I think, from what I observed, was not there to really give advice to his son,” Gonzales said. “He was there to support his son.”
He recalled the day of the election when Bush was seeking a second term in a close race with Sen. John Kerry. George H.W. Bush walked into his White House office and sat down on his couch.
“I said, ‘How are you doing Mr. President?’ And he said, ‘I’m worried,’” Gonzales recalled. “He was worried that his son was going to lose the election. At that moment he was not the former president, he was just a dad.”
Couriel said part of what makes Gonzales an inspiration and a significant figure in American history was his involvement in the years following 9/11.
But Gonzales deflected and said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft carried a much heavier load.
“And it wasn’t just John,” he said. “I would host meetings in my office in the White House after 9/11 with lawyers from Justice, with lawyers from the CIA, lawyers from NSA, lawyers from Defense, lawyers from Treasury, lawyers from State. We would get together, we would analyze a problem, and try to reach consensus on what was the right legal answer. But at the end of these meetings, I would turn to the attorney general or the representative from Justice and say, ‘OK you just heard this discussion, the Department of Justice is charged by statute to advise the executive branch, so John Ashcroft will have the final word.’ And that was the way we operated.”
Those discussions often involved controversial issues, including interrogations, Guantanamo Bay, surveillance, and it was Gonzales’ job to inform the president of the lawyers’ recommendations.
“I would let him know whether there was dissent or not and how serious was the dissent,” Gonzales said. “But he always understood the role of the Department of Justice is to advise the president, and he would always follow that advice.”
Couriel said the grace and resolve Gonzales has shown during his long legal career “as a mentor to so many of us from afar who know what it is to grow up with parents who spoke English as a second language, who came to this country with a great sense of hope and idealism and gratitude for this country, and I knew as a young person studying your life that your life was significant because of what it said about America.”
Couriel asked Gonzales to reflect about what his parents and grandparents would say “if they were sitting with us tonight about the journey you have had.”
Gonzales said his mother was interviewed by a reporter once who asked if she was proud of her son and her response was, she was proud of all her children.
“My mom, she has an incredibly strong faith, a belief in God. And, by the way, I do not believe you can be president of the United States and carry out those responsibilities if you don’t believe in God — the job is just too hard for any one person to shoulder alone.”
Gonzales says faith is important to him and received that from his mother.
His father, Gonzales admits, was an alcoholic.
“We had some tough weekends, but no matter how difficult those weekends were every Monday morning, he got up and went to work because he had children and a family to provide for,” Gonzales said. “And what I learned from him is the importance of showing up, being responsible, just doing your job.”
The same message President Bush had for his advisors on 9/11: “just do your job.”
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