My Friend Al Gonzales

Michael A. Olivas reflects on how faculty colleagues reacted when they learned of his connection to the attorney general whose policies he opposes.

March 2, 2006

Recently, a New York Times reporter called me to discuss legal matters. He co-wrote a story about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the next day's Congressional hearing on domestic spying and other anti-terrorism matters.

The Times story briefly included mention of our conversation, outing me as a long-time friend of the AG, identifying me as one of his "supporters," and using a quip that I had used, that Gonzales was "one of my three Republican friends." He also printed one of several examples I had related concerning Gonzales' lawyering skills, and he accurately noted that he and I "disagree on almost every issue." Alberto and I came to Houston as
professionals at the same time in 1982, and we have had many personal and professional activities in common, as young Mexican American lawyers in the same city will do.

The conversation had been nearly an hour, and the reporter accurately and fairly captured my answers to his many questions, which ranged from Governor Bush's DUI to whether or not the Geneva Convention covers al Qaeda. I get calls regularly from reporters, and thought nothing more of it. However, when I came into my office on Monday morning, I found about 20 e-mail messages from fellow faculty members across the country, condemning me in one way or the other about the remarks I made. The story had been posted on several faculty-driven listservs, along with public and private remonstrances and notes of support. One said, " Este buey no merese tu apoyo" (This mule doesn't deserve your support), while another was headed: "What are torture and war crimes against Muslims/Arabs/Asians of Color between friends?" Thinking that I could not address each one, I posted this note on a law professor listserv:

"All I have to say is that I have many friends, including most who wrote me. I have never required loyalty oaths of my friends, nor they of me. I disagree with many people about many things, but have never set as a precondition of friendship that we agree on social or political issues. I am not about to start doing so now."

We were off to the blogging/listserv races. Since then, I have received dozens of faculty responses, public and private, mostly along these lines: "Hell, Michael deserves this because he in effect endorsed Gonzales" to "Man, I disagree with his choice of friends but he clearly has the right to choose his friends" with all the degrees along this spectrum. The most vociferous have accused me of war crimes, guilt by association, and the like. The most cutting mistook my reluctance to respond further to each iteration as thin-skinned aloofness: "And it is really too bad that some people can be talked into shutting up or walking away just because their feelings get hurt."

A few lawyer friends and family members weighed in, uniformly positive, and reminding me how much they always disagreed with me on various matters. A few whose voting behavior I did not know revealed themselves as Republicans, and assuming I was counting them among the three I had thought I had; overnight, my Republican posse doubled.

After a week of this, I am astounded that people do not see the difference between friendship and politics. It is not often I need to guard my left flank; this whole thing has me baffled, and somewhat amused. I feel like I am in a Mark Twain novel, looking down at my own funeral from the church balcony.

In an odd way, this whole thing has been salutary -- being slimed by some of these folks in public actually helps (such as the "war criminal" calumny from one bozo who has kept carping), but some of the scorchers I have received (in English and Spanish) were of more interest to me. For example, a professor whose work I have always admired wrote me: "Michael, for what it's worth, I think that you are you entitled to have whatever friends you want to have, and to maintain your friendship despite some political disagreements.  But further, such disagreements can deepen real friendships, and when the one or both of the friends are important political actors, maintaining the friendships can also improve national politics by giving those actors access to different information and opinions than they might get from their toadies."

That is my story and I am sticking to it. I am the oldest of 10 children, and we disagree all the time. How could it be otherwise with friends and colleagues?

At the end of the day, I have come to believe that Al Gonzales is probably more worried than I am about our friendship ruining reputations, now that he has been outed as my friend. The whole imbroglio with the nomination of Harriet Miers shows that Republicans can be fickle with friendships and affiliations, but I work hard to keep my friends. And as a postscript, the then-University of Houston president who hired me and with whom I have stayed in touch over the years, Barry Munitz, was in the news this week over the situation at the Getty Trust, where he resigned as president. I do not know Barry's political affiliations, but it has been a tough week for my few friends in high places.

But I will say this: when he returns to Houston, it is Al Gonzales' turn to buy.


Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center.


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