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When I got news of Alberto Gonzales’ resignation, it took me a couple of days to remember that I still had his old high school yearbook tucked away in a desk drawer. I’d gotten it back in 2001 for a long profile of the then-new White House counsel that never saw print. Flipping through the pages provided a quick refresher on the questionable fashion choices in vogue in Texas in 1973. Of course, who among us really could stand up to close scrutiny of our high school selves? Gonzales appears only twice in his yearbook, first as “Albert Gonzales,” sporting a big smile and an even bigger bow tie in his senior class picture, and later as an undersized-looking safety for the “mad dog” defense of the MacArthur High football team, the Generals. Talking about his old high school football exploits was one of the few times I saw Gonzales light up during two interviews we did in the spring of 2001 in the West Wing. It was my first trip into the business side of the White House, and I was suitably awed. While waiting for my interview, I shared a couch with Henry Kissinger, who spent 20 minutes regaling a man I can only suppose was the former ambassador to Finland with his deep admiration for the Nordic nation ( Dey vere alwayz so tuff, up der ahl ahlone vid de Russians). Gonzales himself was less impressive, quiet in manner with a soft handshake and a lilting voice devoid of any trace of his geographic or ethnic origins. Gonzales had been serving as White House counsel for about five months and in the weeks before our interviews, his name had surfaced as a likely nominee for the next Supreme Court vacancy, a move satisfying both the president’s penchant for rewarding personal loyalty (as he would in nominating his next White House counsel, Harriet Miers, five years later), and Karl Rove’s desire to cultivate the Hispanic vote as part of his plan to place Republicans in a permanent electoral majority. But in talking with Gonzales and researching his life, I encountered the same formidable obstacle that would frustrate many in the years to follow: an implacable blandness. Gonzales grew up poor, one of eight children in a house with no hot water that was built by his father and uncle. This was in south Texas in the 1950s and 1960s, but when I raised the issue of his personal history with discrimination, Gonzales had nothing much to say. Nor did he recall much about Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, or what he felt like being the first in his family to go to college or arriving at Harvard Law School. It was all mild, all the time. Consider this exchange from a transcript of our first interview: Q: When did you first know you were a Republican? A: Growing up, I don’t remember my family ever voting. .�.�. I don’t remember having discussions about who to vote for or who to support. I really wasn’t political. My circle of friends weren’t, either. At the [Air Force] Academy same way. I really wasn’t until I went to [the Houston-based law firm of Vinson & Elkins, where Gonzales was a corporate lawyer], and I just developed friendships with people who happened to be Republican. I started attending Republican events and thought, “Hey, I like this.” I mean, I don’t agree with everything Republicans stand for, but who does? In retrospect, you can understand why true-blue conservatives weren’t all that anxious to see Gonzales on the high court. Nor, in truth, did Gonzales seem all that interested when I raised the possibility. At the time, I took it as a pro forma denial. Now, I think he may have been sincere. Not once did I get the sense that this was a man who had grappled with the issues of his times. Honestly, he seemed like a guy I’d meet for lunch at the Houston Petroleum Club. In the end, it seems Gonzales never could quite stop thinking of himself as a downtown lawyer, with President George W. Bush as his client, and that was his undoing. That kind of close connection has had disastrous consequences for presidential lawyers in the past as well, whether it was John Mitchell managing a secret slush campaign fund for President Richard Nixon while attorney general or Abe Fortas’ failed bid to become chief justice of the Supreme Court, a nomination scuttled mainly because of his relationship with President Lyndon Johnson. One thing Gonzales did seem passionate about in our conversations was his desire to get back to Texas when his time in Washington was done. It took six more years, but it looks like he’ll make it. I guess now I can send his yearbook back home as well.
Douglas McCollam is senior editor at Legal Times , and can be contacted at [email protected].

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