Certain people in power can sometimes best be understood through the prism of how they grew up, says Bill Minutaglio, author of First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty, and City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle. He writes that, “The process of ‘ascendance’ is so important in understanding and deconstructing the ‘practice’ and even the abuses of power.” This process is the subject of Minutaglio’s latest book, The President’s Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales. Based on more than 200 interviews with “colleagues, close friends, and fierce critics,” the book is indispensable reading for anyone who seeks to understand Gonzales or the state that produced him. Minutaglio traces the rise of the young man from the sublimely named Humble, Texas, through a brief Air Force career, followed in short order by Rice University, Harvard Law School, a partnership at the Houston law firm of Vinson and Elkins—where he would work on Enron cases—and the job of counselor to George W. Bush as governor and then president. The book ends with Gonzales’ confirmation as attorney general of the United States.
In his preface, Minutaglio refers to a source who told him that “Gonzales was like a man who always seemed to be holding something inside, like someone whose skin practically bulged with all the confidences he had accumulated.” That person added that each time he envisioned Gonzales, he drew a mental picture of him leaning over and whispering to someone. That person suggested that if Gonzales ever sat for a portrait, it should be rendered in the manner of Rembrandt’s “‘The Evangelist Matthew'”—with Gonzales as the mostly hidden, gauzy figure hovering behind the more clearly depicted and important-looking man in the foreground… And resting a few fingertips on the important man’s back… and leaning in to murmur in that man’s ear.”
There are, of course, other shadowy figures that belong in that portrait, particularly David Addington, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and Berkeley law professor John Yoo. But there is something about that image that is so perfect for Alberto Gonzales, the man who hitched his star to that of George W. Bush. It is Gonzales who will forever be remembered for having described the Geneva Convention as “quaint” and “obsolete”; whom The New York Times editorialized as the man “the President sends to the Senate Judiciary Committee to stonewall, obfuscate, and spin fairy tales”; who has served as attorney general in an administration that has disregarded and disdained the rule of law to an unprecedented extent. That is the burden that Alberto Gonzales has to carry.
The following book excerpt is only available in the print version of the magazine. Please subscribe.