By Henry Thornton
On February 26 former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales visited campus to give a speech and meet with students. The speech was marked with controversy as around 25 students gathered in the back of convocation hall to protest his appearance. The protesters were against Gonzales role in the enhanced interrogation policies of the Bush administration.
The demonstrators were holding signs with phrases such as “torture is terrorism” and wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “justice for all.” Fleming Beaver (C’ 16), a member of the Sewanee Democrats and a leader of the protest, called the attorney general’s actions while in office “a gross violation of human rights,” but praised the administration for bringing such a prominent figure to campus.
Alberto Gonzales served as the 80th attorney general of the United States. He served from 2005-2007. In an article about his resignation, the Washington Post called him “one of the nation’s most controversial attorneys general since the Watergate era.” He visited Professor Hatcher’s class on American presidents and met with several pre-law students. Gonzales was at Sewanee to promote his new book A Conservative and Compassionate Approach to Immigration Reform. Gonzales is currently the Dean of Belmont University College of Law, in Nashville Tennessee and frequently appears as a talking head on national news programs.
Professor Hatcher was visibly flustered as she began her introduction of Gonzales, but quickly moved into an articulate speech on the merits of honest discourse. She asserted that “everyone has a right to be heard, and a right to disagree.”
Gonzales did not appear perturbed by the standing group in the back of the room. He gave a carefully prepared speech to sitting audience of around 40 people. He focused on themes of faith and the American dream. Two things that he stressed had been very important in his life. During the round of questions he cordially called out “give him a shot” while indicating a demonstrator in the back. He spoke about his poor upbringing in Texas, his enlistment in the air force, and his enrollment in college. He attributed his success to his parents, his faith, and “living in the greatest country one earth.” A sentiment he repeated numerous times during his remarks. A large portion of the speech was allocated to 9/11 and the immediate response to it. Gonzales described “the moment I saw a wartime president leaving his plane” as the moment he knew his whole career would be worth something.
After a while the floor was turned over to questions. Except in a few specific cases, the questions were largely rambling and unclear. Numerous individuals asked about the “enhanced interrogation techniques” carried out during Gonzales’ tenure as the Attorney General. He was quick to distance himself, saying “that opinion was written by several Department of Justice lawyers, not just me.” He cited US government policies like “mental health checks” and “examinations by doctors” as examples of how his administration’s policies had been better than those of Vietnamese government that imprisoned Senator John McCain. When pressed, he admitted that he “regrets any pain or discomfort illegally cause by government officials,” and said “of course governments make mistakes, it is just a question of identifying and fixing them.” Gonzales was visibly relieved to field a question on his immigration policies. He detailed those policies and urged anyone with more interest to buy his book.
In remarks to the Sewanee Parents Council the next day, Vice-Chancellor McCardell called the speech “fascinating” and remarked about how pleased he was with the politeness of the students protesting. “If we’re not having the tough conversations, we’re probably not doing our job as a college” he said.