Waiting For A Date With The Supremes

Chances are, you wouldn't recognize Alberto Gonzales if he passed you on the street. George W. Bush's White House counsel is not a fixture on the Sunday-morning news shows. But if his face is unfamiliar, his fingerprints are unmistakable. The soft-spoken former Texas judge has been a powerful force behind many of the Bush administration's most aggressive--and controversial--tactics in the war on terror. Whether it's setting up military commissions or liberally reinterpreting the laws on state-sponsored assassination, he has helped Bush take a muscular approach. "In a time of crisis he's going to make sure the president has his full range of powers as commander in chief," says Timothy Flanigan, Gonzales's former deputy. "That may mean pushing the envelope on the law, without exceeding it."

White House counsels can usually stay out of the Washington crossfire. They're not subject to Senate confirmation, and they don't have to wrestle the bureaucracy. Instead, the president's lawyer typically offers discreet advice on legislation and helps the White House staff steer clear of ethical land mines. In the months ahead, Gonzales will weigh in on a range of politically charged legal issues--including Supreme Court cases on abortion and affirmative action. But the 47-year-old lawyer may not be able to stay below radar for long. Conventional wisdom in Washington is that two Supreme Court justices--William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor--may retire in the new year. And Gonzales is routinely mentioned as Bush's first choice to fill the next opening on the high court.

Gonzales has long been a Bush favorite. Friends say he passes Bush's all-important "good man" test: he is loyal, but not sycophantic. He doesn't grandstand. And he is able to reduce complicated issues to a single sentence--a key attribute for a notoriously impatient president. The men have history: a Texas native, Gonzales served as counsel to Bush when he was governor.

But it's his personal story that forms the emotional core of the relationship. The son of migrant workers, Gonzales grew up in a house without running water and was the first in his family to go to college. After Harvard Law, he became the first minority partner at Vinson & Elkins, a posh Houston firm, and eventually made it to the Texas Supreme Court. For Bush, Gonzales is a resonant American symbol--a Hispanic who rose from poverty to a president's side. Placing him on the Supreme Court could help Bush with a key political goal: attracting Hispanic and other minority voters to the Republican Party.

A corporate lawyer most of his career, Gonzales hasn't left a long paper trail to scrutinize. So far, liberals seem cautiously optimistic that he would be a moderate they could live with. But some conservatives have quietly questioned his ideological credentials--in a Texas abortion case, he voted to allow a teenage girl to bypass a parental-notification law. Interviewed in his corner White House office, he wouldn't acknowledge that he's a candidate for the court. But in the same breath, he seemed eager to send a message to anyone trying to divine his position on abortion. "It wasn't a constitutional issue," he said, of the Texas case. "It was purely a statutory interpretation question."

Gonzales will face other tough questions. Some, even inside the administration, ask whether he has the intellectual depth--and passion for arcane legal issues--for the job. One administration official familiar with his record describes his judicial opinions as "workmanlike but not incisive." Lately, some Bushies have been quietly floating another possible spot for him instead: attorney general. Whatever job he gets, Alberto Gonzales may soon be a household name.