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Commentary: Gonzales cares about impact on Hispanics

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SAN DIEGO -- Why do liberals go ballistic over Alberto Gonzales? The nation's first Hispanic attorney general has been out of office for 17 months and his party is no longer in power. Yet Gonzales still drives the left crazy.

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The fits got nastier last week after Gonzales discussed his tenure in the Bush administration during an interview with Michel Martin of National Public Radio. Gonzales now says he wants to set the record straight.

The New York Times responded with an editorial that was off the mark, insisting that during the NPR interview, Gonzales had "attacked President Obama's choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, for saying that waterboarding is torture."

Here's what Gonzales said: "My reaction was very similar to (Attorney) General (Michael) Mukasey's reaction, which was a little concern. ... I don't know, whether or not in making that statement, Mr. Holder had access to all of the opinions. ... And I think that one needs to be careful in making a blanket pronouncement like that, if you don't have all the information."

I interviewed Gonzales four times while he was attorney general, including the day he resigned, and we've spoken several times since. What I've heard convinces me that my liberal colleagues are wrong to try to destroy him. I asked Gonzales recently what he made of his treatment by media.

"I thought it was unfair," he said. "And I don't say that to try to paint myself as a victim. I'm not a victim. But I was a casualty. There have been a lot of casualties in the war on terror -- obviously a great many men and women killed and hurt on the battlefield but also a lot of good people who served in government and did their best and who are now being criticized and castigated. (These are) good people who had the courage to step into the arena of government in a historic period in our nation's history. And I think the treatment by certain members of the media has been totally unfair and biased."

I was also curious what he thinks are the public's biggest misconceptions.

"That I'm incompetent," he said, "and that I knowingly allowed the politicization of the Justice Department."

As to the first charge, he said: "I would match my record against anybody. I had an Ivy League education. I was a partner at a major law firm. I held two statewide offices in Texas. I was general counsel to the governor. That's a very strong record. This notion that I somehow became incompetent because of policies during my time in the White House reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how policy is developed. As White House counsel, my job was to give advice on policy. But it was not my job to develop policy."

As for politicizing the Justice Department, it's clear from congressional testimony and internal investigations that Gonzales didn't keep close enough tabs on his staff and that some underlings flirted with political litmus tests in making personnel decisions. That's a management failure, and it's on him. Gonzales doesn't agree. He says that if he knew what some subordinates were doing, he would have fired them.

Finally, I asked Gonzales if he plans to continue to speak out given how determined some of his media critics are to try to discredit his version of events. He said yes -- and for an interesting reason.

"I've realized that my success in rehabilitating my service is going to be critical, I think, somewhere down the road, to the Hispanic community," he said. "If the notion is that, if you put a Hispanic in a critical position, the Hispanic will fail, then that's not a message that I think we can tolerate, particularly if it happens to be false on its face."

Gonzales' critics couldn't care less about how this episode affects Hispanic progress. All they want is to preserve the narrative they've constructed about a public servant who became the fall guy for the anti-terror policies of the Bush administration to which, it's worth mentioning, the American voters gave their tacit approval when they re-elected Bush.

You don't suppose that's what really bothers the left?

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.

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