WASHINGTON — Alberto Gonzales rose from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power, ever loyal to the man who brought him there: George W. Bush.
Following Bush from the Texas governor’s office to the White House, and ultimately becoming the nation’s first Hispanic attorney general, Gonzales has long been one of the president’s most trusted advisers.
His legal opinions asserting broad presidential powers were central to Bush’s war on terror. They allowed tactics approaching torture in interrogations of detainees and domestic spying that at times encroached on Americans’ privacy. Controversial as those policies were, they were defended as essential to the war on terror. But when Gonzales's actions led the Justice Department to be perceived as a tool of partisan politics, he incurred the wrath of congressional Democrats, and that led to his resignation Monday.
The son of impoverished Mexican migrant workers, Gonzales grew up in a family of 10 crammed into a two-bedroom home in a poor Texas town fittingly named Humble.
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Despite his family’s hardships, he began reaching for the American dream while in his teens. He played football and baseball at Houston’s MacArthur High School, and his As and Bs won him a place in the National Honor Society.
He once said that he had "an unwavering, almost arrogant confidence to shape my future."
It wasn’t misplaced.
Gonzales attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, earned degrees from Rice University and Harvard Law School and took a job at the prominent Houston-based law firm of Vinson & Elkins.
After Bush won the Texas governor’s mansion, he tapped Gonzales to be his general counsel. Three years later, he named him secretary of state, and then made him a Texas Supreme Court justice.
After Bush was elected president in November 2000, he named Gonzales his White House counsel.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gonzales helped forge a strategy relying on sweeping presidential powers. In a January 25, 2002 memo, he described portions of the Geneva Conventions that govern the treatment of prisoners of war as "quaint" and "obsolete." Civil libertarians say the memo helped open the door to human rights abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The memo also outlined plans to try terror suspects before military commissions to prevent them from challenging their detentions in federal courts, a position that the Supreme Court later largely rejected.
In late 2005, after Gonzales succeeded John Ashcroft as attorney general, it was revealed that he also had authorized a secret National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on overseas phone calls without court warrants. Gonzales argued that Congress implicitly gave Bush such power when authorizing him to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks.
In March 2004, another still-secret NSA program stirred such division inside the administration that it led to a dramatic showdown in the hospital room of a gravely ill Ashcroft. When Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card pressed Ashcroft and then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey to reauthorize the program for 45 days, they got rebellion instead. Facing resignation threats from Ashcroft, Comey, FBI Director Robert Mueller and several other senior Justice officials who challenged the program’s legality, Bush relented and revised it.
Gonzales’ downfall stemmed from the mishandling of what seemed initially to be a mundane matter: the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year. When it was revealed that the White House was involved and that several of those ousted had been pressured to bring cases that might benefit Republicans in the 2006 elections, the controversy erupted into a scandal.
Gonzales’ initial attempts to minimize his role in the firings unraveled in the face of his aides’ sworn testimony. Disclosures that the department’s voting rights lawyers had repeatedly taken positions that benefited Republicans and tended to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning minorities escalated the furor.
With Bush’s backing, Gonzales refused for months to quit, maintaining his unflappable public persona as he accepted the resignations of a half dozen aides who played roles in the controversy.
But on Monday, with Congress set to return from vacation next week, he threw in the towel. Characteristically, he never mentioned the scandal that forced him from office.
"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father’s best days," he said.
(Steve Henderson, Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)