WASHINGTON — In the wood-paneled West Wing office of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, two things stand out - and symbolize why this son of Mexican migrant workers could be the first Latino appointed to the US Supreme Court.
* A framed photo of the two President Bushes, sharing a father-son moment in the Oval Office, is blown up to the size of a wall poster and hung where Mr. Gonzales can see it from his desk. "I love that picture," says Gonzales, a Bush-clan loyalist who has known both men for years.
* Gonzales is so soft-spoken that one of the two tape recorders in front of him misses most of his words. His quiet, unassuming demeanor is a testament to his philosophy of how judges should judge - in a "humble," "restrained" way.
As Gonzales leads the White House search for judicial nominees, many here say he himself most embodies the qualities the administration is seeking for the bench. Gonzales' closeness and loyalty to President Bush, and his record of judicial restraint during his two years on the Texas Supreme Court, put his name among those often mentioned as a prospective nominee to the US Supreme Court, when and if a vacancy occurs.
Gonzales "has the temperament, intellect, and respect for the law that you'd look for in a candidate," says White House chief of staff Andy Card, quickly adding that it would be "wrong for me to speculate" on who Mr. Bush might choose if a high-court vacancy occurs.
The close friendship between Gonzales and Bush means the president would not be venturing into the unknown with Gonzales - as the elder Bush did when he nominated David Souter.
In 1990, the first President Bush plucked this New Hampshire judge from obscurity, in part because his lack of a big judicial paper trail gave opponents little to criticize. Later, Justice Souter became a surprisingly liberal justice. Conservatives still criticize the choice.
While his judicial record is skimpy, like Souter's was, Gonzales' thinking is very familiar to his friend in the Oval Office.
The Bushes first encountered Gonzales as a Harvard-educated Houston lawyer with no apparent political ambitions.
Close Bush ties
The first President Bush offered him a job as part of what Gonzales has described as an outreach to rising stars in the minority community. But Gonzales turned him down, focusing instead on making partner.
Then, in 1995, newly elected Governor Bush of Texas remembered the man who had rejected his dad and tapped him to be legal counsel. Since then, Gonzales has proved his discretion and loyalty to a family that prizes both.
In 1996, for instance, Gonzales reportedly helped avoid an embarrassing situation for Bush by maneuvering him out of serving jury duty in a drunk-driving case. Gonzales and a few other top aides apparently knew about Bush's 1976 drunk-driving arrest in Maine - and worried it would be discovered during pretrial questioning. (The arrest did come out in the last days of the 2000 presidential race.)
Bush later appointed Gonzales secretary of State, and then to the Texas Supreme Court. That's why he's known around the White House as "the judge."
Today he's part White House ethics watchdog, part judicial vetter, and the presidency's chief legal defender.
Perhaps his biggest task so far has been to lead the selection of Bush's federal-court nominees - a group that observers say is largely very experienced and quite conservative. He's also had to scramble to put out ethical fires: Both Vice President Dick Cheney and top strategist Karl Rove are facing conflict-of-interest criticism. Gonzales says he's redoubling efforts to "refresh people's memories" about the ethical bright lines, because at the White House, he says, like it or not, "We work in a fishbowl."
It's a dramatic switch from the world he grew up in. His Mexican parents met as migrant workers in the US. Their education was limited: Neither made it to high school. But both worked hard to support Gonzales and his seven siblings, raising them in a two-bedroom house. He has said he learned the ethic of hard work from his dad - who may be partly responsible for the fact that Gonzales usually starts his White House days at 6:30 a.m. and ends them around 7:00 p.m.
But he does make time to play, especially with the president: He went along on Bush's first golf outing as president last week. And he and his family have gone to Camp David with the Bushes. "They ... speak as friends as much as lawyer and client," Mr. Card says.
This closeness has led to Supreme Court speculation. For his part, the unassuming Gonzales insists, "I'm not a candidate. I'm focused on doing this job. I love this job." (Observers say that's a pitch-perfect answer for someone who's at least open to taking the post.)
For now, Gonzales' role is to lead the search for a nominee. But Bush has chosen his headhunter for a post before: Bush charged Mr. Cheney to find a running mate - then picked him for the post.
As Gonzales speaks quietly about the search, he reveals not only what qualities the White House is looking for - but his own approach to judging.
The 'Judge's' philosophy
In keeping with a conservative judicial philosophy, he says the personal opinions of individual judges on matters like abortion or race don't - or shouldn't - matter. "It's unacceptable," he says, "to come to the bench with pre-conceived notions or ideas of how I'm going to rule on a different case." It's "unfair to the litigants."
More important, he says, is "the process" judges use to decide a case - such as whether they rely heavily on precedent. Also crucial are a judge's competence and character, including humility, a trait Gonzales, coincidentally, appears to have lots of.
As a judge, he says, "You've got to realize how much power you have. You can take away minor children from feuding parents; you can put an 18-year-old kid in prison."
Yet, Gonzales has rarely had to deal with such heart-wrenching family or criminal issues - an unusual thing for someone being considered for the highest court in the land.
As a lawyer in Houston, he mostly worked on business cases. He arrived on the Texas Supreme Court as an unknown quantity. But he developed a reputation as a centrist judge who asked tough questions and wrote well-reasoned opinions.
"He was a good technical lawyer and judge," says Harvey Kronberg, a Texas political observer. Yet even as a judge, he dealt only with civil suits. Criminal cases go to another court.
Despite this lack of experience - indeed, perhaps, because of it - observers say Gonzales would have a good shot at surviving a Senate confirmation fight.
On abortion - always an explosive issue - he appears to have a mixed record. On one hand, he talks about a "strict" interpretation of the Constitution - a signal that he doesn't see a specific right to abortions spelled out in that document. On the other, he joined a majority Texas Supreme Court decision that allowed lower-court judges, in individual cases, to override a law requiring a minor to tell her parents that she planned to get an abortion.
That decision worries some conservatives. But since Gonzales' arrival in Washington, he's done two things that please them: He removed the American Bar Association, which they see as liberal, from its role in vetting White House judicial picks; and he has hired many conservatives to work with him, including former aides to conservative Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and former independent counsel and Clinton nemesis Kenneth Starr.
Finally, there's his ethnic heritage. If appointed, he would be the first Hispanic to serve on the high court. Asked if that would be a positive thing, his answer is characteristically low-key, even guarded: "It depends who the nominee is," he says. "It's got to be someone who would do a good job on the court. Otherwise it may undermine confidence in the court in the Hispanic community - and in other communities."
Profile: Alberto Gonzales
Born in San Antonio, Texas.
Parents raised eight children in a two-bedroom house.
After public high school, served in Air Force in Fort Yukon, Alaska, 1973 to 1975.
Attended Air Force Academy to become a pilot, but after two years "I changed my ... goals and decided I wanted to be a lawyer."
Graduated from Rice University in Houston and Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.
Was a private-practice lawyer in Houston from 1982 to 1995, when he became general counsel to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
He and his wife, Rebecca, have three sons.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor