Only hours after announcing in late August he would resign, embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales talked to Ruben Navarrette, a columnist with the San Diego Union Tribune.
Gonzales told Navarrette he wanted to be remembered “as someone who did the best he could … based on what was right and what was just.”
That sounds like a fair yardstick for measuring his public service. But there was more about Alberto Gonzales not yet known.
When Gonzales resigned, Richard Prince, in his online column “Journal-isms,” pointed out that all of the stories about the attorney general’s resignation mentioned he was the first Hispanic to hold that position. The designation supposedly complicated or constrained some commentators from being too critical of him. After all, a Latino as attorney general was a milestone achievement, a source of pride.
Navarrette seems to have been one of those who wasn’t sure Gonzales got a fair shake throughout the legalistic capers the AG was embroiled in. In the interview with Navarrette, Gonzales recognized “at some point, all the facts will come out and people can judge for themselves.”
That time has come. Those who were sanguine might now find the facts not going down very well.
On Oct. 4, The New York Times disclosed that shortly after Gonzales became attorney general in February 2005, his Justice Department issued a secret opinion. In it, Gonzales approved a legal memo authorizing agents “to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics,” according to the Times.
The methods included head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures. Some torture practices had been recanted earlier when they were disclosed after a Gonzales-led task force in the White House had given them legal sanction.
As legal counsel to President Bush, Gonzales had orchestrated the group that devised the draconian torture papers, giving legal sanction to methods violating the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of war prisoners.
That alone did not block him from getting appointed attorney general. Soon, he was implicated in questionable White House interference leading to the firing of nine regional U.S. attorneys. In crucial hearings into the matter, Gonzales testified 71 times he didn’t remember or couldn’t recall important meetings concerning the matter.
Late last year, with his leadership at Justice in question, Gonzales faced scrutiny over whether he testified truthfully, stonewalled or misled congressional inquiry into the firings and National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
Now with the revelation he endorsed the harshest interrogation techniques used by the CIA, even Gonzales’ stalwart defenders will have a hard time rationalizing on his behalf. His own deputy at the time, James Comey, told colleagues at Justice they would all be ashamed when the public learned of the memo.
Two days before the Times expose, on a seemingly different matter concerning Hispanic Heritage Month, Gonzales provided a guest commentary to CNN. In it, he defined Hispanic values as comprised of sacrifice, hard work, personal initiative, dedication to family, and perseverance in the face of adversity. Those are good, and unsurprisingly similar to the personal values he referred to during the turbulent weeks before his long-sought resignation.
They are not the distinguishing qualities that result from the “Hispanic experience.” In fact, the response sounds remarkably like the platitudes used for high-sounding, little-meaning political patronizing.
A more accurate portrayal of the Hispanic experience, especially coming after the 1970s, would recognize the Latino push for voting rights and representation at all levels of government, a demand for a just government that is responsive to the community, an opportunity to participate in all sectors of society and the economy, fair procedures, and respect for civil rights. These values cut across party lines. They are not anyone’s exclusive property. They rest in the domain of social values — even universal standards — not just personal ones.
These social values too should be used to measure how the former attorney general performed when he occupied that position. Those who seek to justify torture should never be allowed to hide behind Hispanic values. Breaking the public trust will find no safe harbor in Hispanic civic values.
(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power,” writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)