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Commentary: A view from a Gonzales perspective

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commentary Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- Having missed the chance to name a Hispanic to one of the top four Cabinet positions, President-elect Barack Obama is now under pressure by some groups to put the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court.

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I was curious about how that might go over with someone who was the highest-ranking Hispanic Cabinet member in history and who had been rumored to be on the short list for the high court.

So I called Alberto Gonzales. The former attorney general isn't ready to talk publicly about the U.S. attorney scandal that forced him from office. Although he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Justice Department's inspector general, there may be more investigations. Besides, Gonzales is distrustful of a press corps that made him the fall guy for nearly everything that went wrong with the Bush administration. One day, he insists, he'll set the record straight.

For now, we limited our conversation to other topics:

- About being the only Hispanic to hold a top Cabinet position: "The people occupying those positions (Treasury, Defense, State and Justice) will have greater access to the president. So I think putting a Hispanic in one of those four positions was significant."

- About how he views his career and whether his race is part of the story line: "I do think that, for a segment of the Hispanic population, there was a great deal of pride that someone named Gonzales worked in the West Wing (as White House counsel) advising the president on the most serious legal issues of the day, or someone named Gonzales, the son of a migrant worker, became the attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer in the country. I'm proud of my service."

- About putting a Hispanic on the Supreme Court: "I can understand how some Hispanics would like a Hispanic on the Supreme Court ... I, for one, would like to see it happen. But the notion that appointing a Hispanic to the court is the right thing to do or that somehow we deserve it, that's just not something I agree with. When it comes to the Supreme Court, I don't think the president is really obliged to any interest group or ethnicity."

- About whether Eric Holder, Obama's choice for attorney general, should be asked about the Marc Rich pardon: "Some of the criticism about me was that I was too close to the president and could not say no. This appears to be an instance where people might ask, "Was Deputy AG Holder willing to say no to the president even though he said yes?" If that's the test they placed upon me and (Michael) Mukasey, that's a legitimate test to apply to the incoming attorney general."

- About Republicans and Hispanics: "The Republican Party has lost ground in attracting Hispanics and, given the tremendous growth of the Hispanic population, it presents a real challenge. ... Obviously, the tone has to change on certain issues like immigration. I think Hispanics are receptive to the notion that, if you have laws, they need to be enforced and respected. They also understand that, in a tough economy, do you really want a bunch of illegal immigrants coming into this country and taking jobs? There are ways to have this conversation that are respectful, and the party needs to learn that."

- And, finally, about his own future: "I'm someone who has had some rather unique experiences and I'm still a relatively young man. And I believe very much in public service and giving back and participating in the process. So whatever I do professionally, I still intend to speak out and offer up my opinion. Again, it's just one man's opinion. But I do have a perspective that I think can be helpful."

Alberto Gonzales does have an interesting perspective, and strong opinions. He also has a story to tell about his time in the Bush inner circle. The sooner he tells it, the sooner he can get on with living what even his critics would have to admit has already been a remarkable life.

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

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