Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2004 / 2 Kislev, 5765

Peter A. Brown

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Gonzales lives America's promise | I've never met Alberto Gonzales, but for 20 minutes last spring he made me very proud to be an American.

Gonzales, President Bush's pick to be attorney general, was the commencement speaker when my son graduated from Rice University in May.

Gonzales' life is a testament to the notion that in the United States anyone really can grow up to be president, or at least attorney general.

Without schmaltz, the unique reality is that the class differences that constrain social and economic mobility in large parts of the rest of the world are much more surmountable here.

That is the promise of America. In a very divided nation in which the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, it is more than heartwarming to see that promise fulfilled.

It is not just that Gonzales will become the nation's first Hispanic attorney general if confirmed by the Senate. It is how he got there and what that journey says about him and American society.

He grew up as one of eight children in a two-bedroom house without hot water or a telephone until he was in high school. As a 12-year-old, his first job was selling sodas at Rice football games from the upper deck of the 70,000-seat stadium overlooking the bucolic campus. He watched the students wander back to their dorms, wondering "what it would be like" to go to that prestigious college, an existence far removed from that of anyone he knew.

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Gonzales made his Mexican immigrant parents proud just by graduating from high school. That was all they or his teachers ever expected of him. They never thought about college — it was beyond their frame of reference, and his financial means. He joined the Air Force.

Gonzales, then Bush's White House counsel, told Rice parents and students that day about being assigned to a base in Alaska where he began to see life's possibilities. During those long, cold nights he realized that he had the opportunity to do more with his life than he had ever imagined — or anyone in his family had ever experienced.

He took the unusual route of going from enlisted airman to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Gonzales eventually transferred to Rice, where he fulfilled his childhood dream, then exceeded even his wildest imagination by graduating from Harvard Law School. That achievement led him to a white-shoe Houston law firm.

He later turned down an offer to work for the first President Bush. But in Houston Gonzales got to know the First Son and went to work for him when W. became Texas governor. He was subsequently appointed to the Texas Supreme Court. He became the president's top lawyer when his friend won the Oval Office.

Presidents love to curry favor with key constituencies through appointments, and with the emerging clout of Hispanics, the Gonzales appointment is a coup for the Republican Party.

Politics in Washington is a blood sport, and one can be sure that with the personnel turnover that comes with a new term, Democrats will seize on one or more top appointments to make political hay. They would be wise to look elsewhere for their fight. Gonzales' White House record will be put under the microscope, but it is hard to imagine anything derailing confirmation.

Any Democrat with a brain will look at Gonzales' record and figure they should be happy with him as a replacement for John Ashcroft. President Bush wasn't going to appoint a liberal to the post, and although Gonzales may not be that much less conservative than the current attorney general, he won't be nearly the polarizing figure.

Besides, if they want to make a serious stand against Bush's appointment of a Supreme Court justice whenever a vacancy occurs, Democrats should be happy they won't have to do battle over Gonzales, who had been rumored to be at the top of the short list there.

Moreover, when it comes to politics and public opinion, one's life story almost always trumps ideology.

Last May at Rice, I was sitting next to a couple from India whose nephew was graduating. We discussed the unhappiness in the United States about the outsourcing of jobs to India. The graduate's uncle was understandably defensive about the matter and our conversation tapered off.

But, as I listened to Gonzales tell the students how much education changed his life and the importance of understanding life's possibilities, I saw this man shaking his head in agreement.

Gonzales' story is a universal one. All Americans — be they blue-staters from Boston or red Americans in Reno — should rightly be proud that it happened here.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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