BY NAEUN RIM
The Bush Administration claimed another casualty late last month, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a graduate of Harvard Law School, finally announced that he would soon be resigning his post. On September 17, 2007, he will end his two and a half year tenure, one that, from day one, was riddled with tumultuous controversy.
“It’s about time,” said Brian Schroeder, a 3L. “Towards the end of his term, he was basically shirking all of his duties to focus on responding to all the scandals surrounding him.” In many respects, Gonzales has enjoyed an extraordinary and historical career. The son of a construction worker, he consistently outshone his classmates and colleagues to hold some of the highest offices in country. Having served as the Secretary of State in Texas and then on the Supreme Court of Texas, he went on to become the first Latino American to hold the position of Attorney General of the United States.
Yet his accomplishments were often overshadowed by bitter politics from both sides. Republicans at first objected to his nomination because of his apparent moderate stance on abortion and affirmative action. Democrats have been critical of his every move, decrying his support of the Patriot Act and crediting him with paving the way for many of the Bush Administration’s missteps. His famed “torture memo,” in which he argued that anti-torture laws were outdated, became the subject of heated discussion during his confirmation hearings.
Even after taking office, scandal seemed to follow him everywhere. When newspapers exposed Bush’s authorization of the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on phone conversations without warrants, Gonzales came under fire for misrepresenting to Congress the heated nature of the discussions that revolved around the program. Rumor spread that he had improperly pressured John Ashcroft, the former Attorney General, into reauthorizing the program while he was recovering in the hospital. Democrats accused him of perjuring himself before Congress and called for his resignation.
Professor Richard Fallon expressed disapproval of Gonzales’ tactics.
“Probably more than any other Cabinet member, the Attorney General has an obligation not to let loyalty to the President and the President’s policy agenda-which are of course perfectly appropriate-interfere with a duty to exercise disinterested judgment in upholding the rule of law,” Fallon wrote in an email. “Alberto Gonzales failed in his obligations to the rule of law.”
In early 2007, news hit that eight United States Attorneys had been fired by the Justice Department without explanation, in spite of positive evaluations of their performance. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Tyler Tassin, a 3L.
“People have been pissed at him for a long time, but I think it was the firing of the prosecutors that ultimately let to his resignation.” At the time, even some Republicans joined in the call for Gonzales to step down.
Many HLS students have expressed their relief at his removal from the Cabinet, some calling him the “worst Attorney General in history.” Jeff Jacobstein, a first year law student, commented, “The fact that he was an alum is probably a little embarrassing for the law school.”
Schroeder agreed with those sentiments. “It will be hard to do worse than him for the next Attorney General.”
Nonetheless, several students expressed sympathy for Gonzales and were particularly critical of the way Harvard Law students acted towards him last April, when he unexpectedly visited the campus last year for a class reunion. As Gonzales stood among his classmates on the steps of Langdell Library for a picture, several students yelled out “torture” and “resign.”
Thomas Becker, now in his third year, protested Gonzales’ presence by standing in an orange prisoner’s suit with a black hood over his head. According to blog reports, one student told Gonzales that she was ashamed that he was an alumnus of Harvard and refused to shake his hand.
“I heard about the protest last year outside of the library,” said Billy Magnuson, a 2L. “I thought that was a little inappropriate, because I think that was part of his personal life, even if I felt that his resignation itself was appropriate.”
“He came back as a private citizen, not as an official,” 3L Tyler Tassin said. “I think the protesters who did that gave the school a black eye. It was a tasteless move.”
Nick Barnaby, also a 3L, praised Gonzales’ good nature. “I met him on campus when he was here for the reunion, and he seemed like a really nice man,” said Barnaby. “He told me that public service was much more interesting and rewarding than life at a law firm, and he was gracious when I told him that I disagreed with everything that he did.”
Yet even those sympathetic to his position felt that Gonzales’ resignation was inevitable.
“I think he was in a position where, because of the public outcry, he had to step down,” said Tassin. “Bush was fighting a Democratic Congress, and having Gonzales around wasn’t going to do anything to prevent his lame duck status.”
Most students did not care that Gonzales was an alumnus of Harvard Law School, nor did they feel affected by the fact that two of the leading contenders, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Solicitor General Paul Clement, are also alumni. A few, however, expressed some pride in the fact.
“I am honored to attend a school that has produced many great leaders and trailblazers, Attorney General Gonzalez among them,” 3L Kevin Parker wrote in an email. “I believe both Secretary Chertoff and Solicitor General Clement would do a wonderful job. It would be great for HLS to supply the next Attorney General as well as the previous. Certainly better that the next [Attorney General] come from here than from Yale!”
But for the most part, there appears to be no love lost for the Attorney General, at least from the current students who share his alma mater. Becker stands by his act of protest.
“Alberto Gonzales’ tenure at the Justice Department stained not only his reputation but also that of this law school’s alumni and the legal profession as a whole,” he wrote in an email. “That he served for almost three years, despite scandal after scandal, was a shame.”
“I don’t think he represents Harvard Law at all,” said Montrel McKay, a 3L. “I only wish he had quit sooner then he did. He should have been gone a long time ago.”