Alum Named Attorney General

President Bush nominated Harvard Law School alum Alberto R. Gonzales to serve as the first Hispanic U.S. attorney general Wednesday, just one day after the controversial John Ashcroft stepped down from his post as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

Conversations with Gonzales’ friends in the Harvard Law Class of ’82 revealed a portrait of a bright, fun-loving student—the highly motivated son of two Mexican immigrants who overcame steep obstacles to reach Harvard.

He regaled his classmates with stories of his rise from humble origins—his family did not own a telephone until he was in high school—to the apex of Ivy League academia.

Gonzales enlisted in the Air Force after completing high school, and he was sent to the Point Barrow base on Alaska’s Arctic coast.

As he later recounted to Law School classmate Paul J. Karch ’78, Gonzales protested to his sergeant that “all people do here [at Point Barrow] is drink and gamble—and I don’t like either on of those.”

The sergeant advised that Gonzales enroll in correspondence courses. The instructor in Oklahoma to whom Gonzales mailed his assignments was so impressed that he called the military to recommend that Gonzales be admitted to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

After two years at Colorado Springs, Gonzales transferred to Rice University in Houston—after which he headed to Harvard to pursue a J.D. degree.

As he later told Karch, Gonzales and his first wife arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1979 without having arranged for an apartment. Just days before class started, the couple had yet to find a place to live—and they ended up renting a unit in housing projects near Fresh Pond.

“Their second or third day there, somebody steals their car,” recounted Karch. “They were a couple of nice kids from Texas having a hellacious time in Cambridge.”

But within a few months, Gonzales had eased into the swing of Harvard life. He and Karch donned white shirts and shorts and frequently played squash at Hemenway Gym. “I still resent him a bit because I taught him how to play squash...and he was such a good athlete that he just clobbered me every time we played for three years,” recalled Karch, who is now an attorney in Wisconsin.

Gonzales starred as a shortstop on a recreational softball team—and his lateral agility sparked classmates at his 20th Law School reunion to quip that “Al could go to his left better than anybody we ever saw, but apparently he hasn’t done it since.”

According to Karch, Gonzales didn’t broadcast his political views. “He had a very ready smile and he was very agreeable—but not a real talkative guy,” Karch said.

“He was quiet, but he did seem like he was a person of substance and integrity,” said Law School classmate Mark B. Helm ’78, a former Crimson editor who is now an attorney in California.

“He’s someone I would describe as down-to-earth, who did not have a particular ego,” classmate Christopher G. Caldwell said. “He enjoyed Friday night beer busts,” added Caldwell, who is now an attorney in California.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1982, Gonzales rose through the ranks of a prestigious Houston firm to serve as legal counsel to George W. Bush during his first term as Texas governor.

Gonzales helped Bush get out of jury duty in a 1996 drunk driving case—a strategically-key maneuver that allowed the then-governor to avoid revealing under oath that he himself had been arrested for DUI in 1976.

Bush tapped Gonzales to be Texas’ secretary of state in 1997 and named him to the State Supreme Court in 1999.

When Bush won the presidency in 2000, he brought Gonzales with him to Washington to serve as White House counsel.

Gonzales was frequently mentioned as a potential Bush Supreme Court appointee during the president’s first term, although some religious conservatives expressed concern over his views on abortion. While he was a justice in Texas, Gonzales voted with a State Supreme Court majority to allow some teenage females to get abortions without parental consent.

At the Class of ’82 reunion two years ago, attendees were abuzz about their former classmate’s high profile in the Bush administration.

“There was some talk about how he was a confidant of Bush, but nobody could recall him,” said classmate Marshall Win, who is an attorney in South Carolina. “Someone had a yearbook and we looked up his picture but nobody recognized him.”

None of the Harvard Law professors contacted by The Crimson who were on faculty while Gonzales was a student here remembered the presumptive attorney general.

Experts said Gonzales is all but certain to win Senate confirmation. “Because so many people were discontent with Ashcroft, Gonzales ought to win relatively easy approval,” said Barry C. Burden, an associate professor of government.

Burden said the Gonzales nomination would strengthen Bush’s support among Latinos—44 percent of whom voted to re-elect the president last week, according to exit polls.

“Gonzales is the latest in a continuing series of efforts by the Bush administration to build a relationship between the Republican Party and Latinos,” Burden wrote in an e-mail.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu —Contributing writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.