MURFREESBORO — A Sept. 25 talk anticipated as a recruiting tool for his law school turned out to be an opportunity for former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to talk politics and breaking news, reminisce about his days in the West Wing and encourage MTSU students to include community service as part of their career paths.
Gonzales, the dean of Belmont University's College of Law, made his first trip to MTSU Thursday to speak on “Law School and the Legal Profession” at the invitation of MTSU’s Department of Political Science and the University Honors College.
Greeting an audience of students and staff inside the Paul W. Martin Sr. Honors Building's Simmons Amphitheatre, Gonzales fielded a few specific questions about Belmont's program, established in 2011, and the availability of jobs for new law grads. The afternoon’s focus, however, remained more on what led him to the nation's top legal job and the work he did in that office.
Gonzales served as counsel to George W. Bush when Bush was Texas governor, then joined him in Washington, D.C., as the first Hispanic White House counsel, serving as the 80th U.S. attorney general from 2005 to 2007. He also served as the Texas secretary of state and as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.
Gonzales even had empathy for the 82nd U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, whose resignation was rumored all day and was officially announced shortly after Gonzales' MTSU visit ended.
"Anytime the attorney general announces that he or she is stepping down, it is a sad day," Gonzales said. "A lot of people have worked very, very hard the last 5 1/2 years helping General Holder move forward his agenda, which is to reflect the agenda of the president of the United States.
"Not surprisingly, I'll say that I do not agree with some of the decisions made by the Department of Justice under General Holder, but I have to honor his service," Gonzales continued. "I know how difficult it is to be in the position of attorney general. The attorney general is invariably going to be involved in the most controversial decisions, and whichever way the attorney general goes, somebody is going to be unhappy."
Gonzales' White House tenure was marked by controversy related to the war on terrorism and his personnel decisions, prompting a peaceful protest of his visit outside the Honors Building by members of the MTSU branch of the national organization Solidarity and a brief interruption of his talk by students inside who disagreed with his views.
"Controversial decisions? Right? That's your legacy, man," one young man said as MTSU Police escorted him and two friends out of the room.
"One of the things we do when we serve the government is fight for the right for people to speak out like that," Gonzales said, turning back to the crowd after glancing at the protesters.
He then recalled his work days in the West Wing, going from the casual atmosphere of "never giving it a thought to pop over to the (Texas) Capitol building (in Austin), plop down on the couch and talk about policy, politics and baseball" with Bush to "going through four security checkpoints and past bomb-sniffing dogs every day … to stand in front of the same desk used by FDR as he negotiated with Winston Churchill to try to find an end to WWII, the same desk used by JFK as he wrestled with the Cuban missile crisis, the same desk used by Ronald Reagan as he worked to end the Cold War, to get to advise the president of the United States."
Recalling at length his experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, and still sounding awed by the opportunity he had in Washington, Gonzales explained that "every day, every moment, is special when you get to work in the White House." He admitted having some regrets about decisions he made, however.
"I'm asked sometimes if I have regrets about my time in service. Of course I do," he said. "Wouldn't it be great in life if we had do-overs? If you think about the degree of difficulty that an Eric Holder or a President Obama has every day and think they're not making mistakes, you don't understand how difficult these decisions are. But you identify them, you learn from them, you correct them if you can, and then you move on.
"I don't like to spend a lot of time listing all the things I would 'do over,'" he said after explaining the context of his "quaint" characterization of some prisoner-of-war privilege provisions of the Geneva Convention.
"We would all do things better, differently, if we had the benefit of hindsight, and that's certainly true when you're in these positions of power and authority."
Gonzales is a native of Humble, Texas, and was one of eight children born to first-generation Mexican-American parents. Despite family hardships, Gonzales became an honors student and subsequently attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he continued his academic excellence.
He earned his bachelor's degree with honors from Rice University and his law degree from Harvard and said he didn't become involved in politics until he returned to Houston and began practicing law.
"I made a circle of friends who happened to be Republicans … and was given various leadership opportunities in the Republican Party in Harris County and Houston, so I became a Republican," he said. "But I try to encourage people to look out for your own self-interests in deciding whom you want to support. Don't just look at the party as a label. Look at what they're saying. What are they selling you?"
Gonzales joined the Nashville law firm of Waller Lansden in 2011 and has served as the Doyle Rogers Distinguished Chair of Law at the Belmont College of Law since moving to Tennessee. He was named to lead Belmont's law school this past June.
He has a book on immigration law that will be available in November, "A Conservative and Compassionate Approach to Immigration Reform," co-written with Texas immigration attorney David N. Strange, that he said is "going to make some conservatives angry and make some liberals angry, which tells me we're on the right track with it."
Gonzales encouraged the students to use their education to be ready to face any opportunities that arise, both personal and professional.
"You may go to law school, but that doesn't mean you're going to practice law," he said. "You can do all kinds of things with a law degree. I love what I do, and having that law degree has been very helpful.
"I'm on the ground floor in working to prepare the next generation of leaders for this community, for this state, for this country. I want to help you get ready. I know what it takes to be successful. It could be tough, but if you prepare yourself with an education, by being proficient in a trade or profession, there's going to be another George W. Bush who's going to come along and give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, like he did for me. And the question is, are you going to be ready?"
He added that public service is the best way to ensure stability in the community as well as find personal satisfaction.
"You have a lifetime to make money, and you have a lifetime to pay back (educational) debt. Try to find time to give back to the community," he said. "Lawyers have a special obligation and a unique opportunity to do something in the community.
“It will … surely make you a better person if you step into the arena of public service and give back. It's the best thing I've ever done, and it's made me so much happier. Go in with your eyes open and your armor on, but at the end of the day, you're going to be so grateful that you've done something with your life."