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Commentary: Gonzales got an unfair rap

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Alberto Gonzales made serious mistakes in office
  • Columnist says Gonzales has gotten more than his fair share of criticism
  • Navarrette: Many of his actions were part of Bush policies to fight terrorism
  • He says Obama administration will have to grapple with same issues
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says Alberto Gonzales has been singled out for criticism for Bush-era missteps.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says Alberto Gonzales has been singled out for criticism for Bush-era missteps.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Last week, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was a guest on CNN's "Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull."

When Brown asked what he had learned from his experience, Gonzales said that "you're going to make mistakes" and the important thing was not to "be paralyzed by criticism."

Gonzales seems to be taking his own advice. He has gotten plenty of criticism. Yet lately he has been making the media rounds trying to tell his side of the story.

There's a reason the rest of us should hear Gonzales out. We haven't gotten the whole story. Oftentimes it's easier for us to judge people based on a sketchy, and unfair, media caricature.

I have defended Gonzales in the past, and I stand by that defense. It's undeniable that he made mistakes. At times, he was careless -- in his choice of words, in his management style and his failure to speak up in his own defense.

In testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales tried to avoid what he feared was a "perjury trap" and wound up claiming a faulty memory prevented him from answering questions about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

He also is accused of allowing the politicization of the Justice Department. In fact, the department's inspector general and its ethics office have issued reports confirming that top aides to Gonzales improperly used political litmus tests to fill nonpolitical positions and accusing Gonzales of being an inattentive manager.

Gonzales' caricature took shape when he got to Washington, but his career in public service began much earlier and included a stint on the Texas Supreme Court. And he deserves credit along with the rest of the Bush team for keeping America safe and preventing another attack after September 11, 2001. He is obviously a smart guy with a thick skin, and he accomplished a lot in life, eventually becoming America's first Hispanic attorney general.

I interviewed Gonzales many times during his tenure and afterward. He and I disagree on a lot of things, including whether terror suspects should be denied the right to habeas corpus.

But we agree that much of the criticism of him by the media has been unjust, inaccurate and driven by an ideological desire to discredit him -- and, by extension, former President George W. Bush.

Parts of the narrative even seem to conflict with one another. For instance, Gonzales was depicted as incompetent and yet, at the same time, diabolical enough to be the architect of the administration's anti-terror policies.

I asked the former attorney general to rate his treatment by the media. He said he thought much of it was unfair and biased. One thing that bothers him is the double standard.

"My positions are very consistent with John Ashcroft's, and Mike Mukasey's positions are very consistent with mine. Yet I don't hear criticism of them. Why is that?"

Good question. Ashcroft was criticized for being a hard-right conservative, but he was not caricatured as a bumbling lackey. He even won sympathy from some liberals after word surfaced of a bedside hospital visit by Gonzales and Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card who -- according to a former Justice Department employee -- were trying to get Ashcroft to sign off on a directive approving a warrantless surveillance program. (Gonzales denies that was the intent of the visit.)

And, if anything, Mukasey's time in office was a cakewalk because many of the Gonzales critics saw him as the cleanup crew.

Ashcroft, Gonzales and Mukasey all carried out the president's policies in the war on terror. Yet which one of the three do you suppose has been constantly referred to as "torture boy" by condescending liberal bloggers, castigated by newspaper editorial boards, vilified by Democrats and abandoned by Republicans?

That's right: Gonzales.

I have my own theories as to why that is. Gonzales was closer to Bush and thus he was a more inviting target. And because Gonzales also had served as White House counsel, it was convenient for his critics to argue that -- even after he moved to the Justice Department -- he never stopped being the president's lawyer.

Then there are those who say that Gonzales dug his own grave by supporting Bush in what some consider constitutionally questionable decisions. But, as Gonzales points out, it's the president who sets the policy, and many of those decisions were evaluated and signed off on by numerous lawyers in the executive branch. Why does he get the lion's share of the criticism?

Then, inescapably, there is the issue of race and ethnicity. I'm not saying that Gonzales was run out of the job because he was Hispanic. Nor am I saying that the only reason white liberals went after Gonzales is because he is Hispanic. But it's a factor in the mix.

Many of Gonzales' critics consider this Harvard-educated native of Humble, Texas, totally undeserving of the opportunities he had. And they aren't shy about saying so -- often with insult, or condescension, or even racism. Consider referring to Gonzales, a grown man, as "torture boy."

Or the person who, in commenting on a liberal Web site, mocked Gonzales' evasive congressional testimony and his plans to write a book by saying that the memoir should be titled, "Yo No Hablo." (I don't speak.) Nope. No racism there.

After his swearing-in last week, Attorney General Eric Holder took a few gratuitous shots at Gonzales. Holder stressed the importance of "enforcing the laws that protect our rights." Holder said, "This may be a break from the immediate past, but it is consistent with the long history of the Department of Justice."

I wish Holder luck. Being the attorney general in the post-September 11 era is no day at the beach. The daily briefings of terror threats alone, I'm sure, will turn your hair white.

Let Holder have his fun, since he obviously feels morally superior to his predecessors. He had just better make sure that he brings his A-game to work every day because, no matter what you think of Gonzales, the threat he and others in the Bush administration tried to protect us from is still out there.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

All About Eric HolderAlberto GonzalesMichael Mukasey

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