Former Attorney General discusses experience in White House
Claire King | Tuesday, April 9, 2019
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales discussed his experience working in the White House during a talk Monday with professor William Kelley at the McCartan Courtroom at Notre Dame Law School.
Gonzales was appointed by former President George W. Bush as the United States’ 80th attorney general in 2005 after serving as Bush’s general counsel during his governorship in Texas. Gonzales was the first-ever Latino person to work in the White House.
Gonzales shared a story about one of his first experiences with Bush.
“When I was offered the position, I asked ‘Why me?’ and Bush told me this story from back in 1998 when his father was first elected as president,” he said. “I was asked to go to Washington and interview for some positions. They offered me a job, but I wanted to stay at my law firm. Fast forward to Austin, and Bush says, ‘You turned down my old man for a job. That’s how you first got on my radar.’”
Gonzales noted Bush’s “remarkable memory of people, faces and stories” throughout his time working with Bush. Diversity was also something that was always very important to Bush, Gonzales said.
“Bush used to say that he believed it was important that our government be reflective of our society,” Gonzales said. “He’d always emphasize qualifications and talent first, but for him diversity was very important.”
When commenting on Bush’s first years in the White House, Gonzales said they had to start from nothing and they got the administration running through those they chose to work with.
“You hire an incredible team. You just dive in. You do the work,” he said.
Gonzales said he emphasized teamwork during his time in the White House and explained how important it is to understand those you are working with.
“I knew Bush well,” Gonzales said. “It’s important as a lawyer to know how your client receives information, especially when they are making decisions. … Bush was always very clear — we’re not going to do anything that is unlawful. If it’s lawful, and it’s effective, and it’s necessary, we’re going to do it.”
Gonzales also commented on his role as attorney general and how his position informed the president.
“Sometimes, I would have to remind myself what my role was as a lawyer — to say you can do this or you can’t do this,” Gonzales said. “I may have personal views whether it’s a matter of policy or what would affect Bush’s legacy, and at times he would be appreciative of that. Other times he would say, ‘Thank you, but you are the lawyer. I am the one elected by the people to represent our country.’”
Gonzales said his role became much more public when he transitioned from general counsel to attorney general.
“You testify, you speak with the media, you give speeches, you travel around the world,” he said. “It’s all very different. It’s a lot more public. Your whole life revolves around the president, and the lives of the people of the U.S. revolves around you.”
Despite the public transition, Gonzales said he loved working at the White House despite the harsh criticism targeting him at times through the media.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I wish government service weren’t that way, but it is. Nonetheless, it is worth every sacrifice.”