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Up Close and Personal With Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

Judge Alberto Gonzales, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as the 80th United States Attorney General and now serves as Dean of Belmont University College of Law, joins host Richard Levick of LEVICK. He shares his transition from government to Dean of a faith based law school and what it was like in the White House post 9/11; his views on the election and January 6th; his long term relationship with President Bush; the importance of faith, particularly when confronting so many challenging decisions and more. He is the highest-ranking Hispanic American in executive government to date. Listen here

Follow the podcast link to hear their full discussion, or read a segment of their conversation below.

Richard Levick
Good day, and welcome to In House Warrior, the daily podcast of the Corporate Counsel Business Journal. I’m Richard Levick. And I’m honored today to have former Attorney General of the United States, the 80th Attorney on the United States to President George W. Bush, Judge Alberto Gonzales. Judge, welcome to the show. Great to see you.

Judge Alberto Gonzales
Well, it’s a pleasure to be on this show. And looking forward to this conversation.

Levick
Well, thank you so much, you. You know you have this extraordinary career. You’re now the dean of the law school at Belmont University. You and I were neighbors at one point– I know that was the highlight of your career, so…

Judge Gonzales
Well, it certainly was one of them.

Levick
Have you thought about getting into politics, you know? So why don’t you talk– Let’s start, you know, we were talking a little pre-show about being at Belmont. Belmont, kind of fascinating mission. Why don’t you talk a little bit about the university? Why you chose to be here and sort of the transition, why don’t we start there?

Judge Gonzales
Okay, well, probably back in 2011, my son wanted to come to Nashville to look at some faith-based colleges, which we supported. And so, one of the colleges he wanted to look at was Belmont– odd, to be honest with you. And Belmont– I’ve told this story before, I had never heard of Belmont. And at the time, they were about to start a law school. And I knew nothing about that. So, we had a good visit. My son Graham decided he wanted to come to school at Belmont. About two weeks after that visit, I got a call from the founding dean, and he asked me, “would you be interested in teaching here?” Of course, I said, “No, I didn’t want to leave Texas.” I’m a Texan. I love Texas. And then we kept communicating and the offer got better. I then got an offer from a law firm at one of the large law firms here in Nashville to be an associate affiliated with that farm. And so, my wife and I decided, “Okay, we’ll go to Nashville, and we’ll see how it goes.” And we love it here. We really do. It’s a growing, thriving community. The people here in Tennessee are much like Texas, very open and very friendly and inviting. And Nashville is very much like Austin, which, you know, we spent some very fun and hopefully impactful years in Austin, when Bush was governor of Texas. It’s a college town, it’s a capital town, it’s a music town. So we love it here in Nashville. There’s a lot going on. And I’ve been the Dean since, I guess, 2014. We’ve done very well, for a young law school in the South. It’s that core sort of faith base. And I mean that sincerely, unfortunately, because, you know, I think that around the country, some people say, “well, you’re just a Christian law school.” But we’re much more than that. And I think that I’m very proud of what we’ve done here in this short period of time that Belmont Law School has existed.

Levick
So let me ask you a personal question, if I may, particularly since, you know, we’re now three minutes into the interview. So I’ve earned all your trust, to ask personal questions. I remember– and I don’t think you will– but I remember, as you were leaving Washington, you were over at our home with your wife, and we were talking about some of the transitional issues. And then I had Michael Caputo, who of course, was Undersecretary of HHS, on the show, Mike Espy was in our office when he was leaving, he had left Washington from an earlier administration as Secretary of Agriculture. And I always got this sense that you know– and I’ve been in Washington for 50-some years, as much as I love and I suspect you love Washington– it’s a tough town. And it’s a tough town politically. And I just wonder, the feeling that you had in leaving.

Judge Gonzales
I had a number of feelings. One I felt, I felt the job had not completed the mission. And I kind of felt bad about leaving. You know, shortly after I left, I had dinner with Hank Paulson, who was the treasury secretary. And Hank told me, I remember distinctly, he said, “you know, you’ll never have a job as challenging, as rewarding, as difficult as a job you’ve just had. And you just need to acknowledge that and accept that. It’s just you’re never going to have that same kind of feeling of challenge again.” And that said, it’s sad. On the other hand, I also have to be extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to serve in the roles that I did in Washington versus White House Counsel, then of course, as the Attorney General. Public service should not be this hard. But being Attorney General of the United States is extremely difficult: you’re always going to be involved in making decisions, someone’s going to be mad at the decision you make. And the press is brutal. Congress, sometimes it can be brutal. And so it’s a very, very difficult position, I’m often asked, “of all things you’ve ever done, which job did you enjoy the most?” And being cabinet secretary is an incredible privilege, being head of the Department of Justice with 110,000 employees that genuinely do a very, very good job on behalf of the American people, that’s so rewarding. But if you’re an American citizen, going to work every day to the White House, to serve a president you knew well back from your days at Texas, believing in what he believes in, it doesn’t get any better than that. And so, clearly, my four years in was in the White House, those are the most enjoyable years of public service, that I had the privilege and pleasure of experiencing. And so it’s, you know, there’s a mixture of feelings from your service. Again, some heartache, some anger. But by and large for me, just overwhelming gratitude that I had the chance to do this. Not many people. There’s no other lawyer in the history of our country, who’s ever been both White House Counsel and Attorney General of the United States. So I’m grateful to George W. Bush, that the appointments, the opportunities he gave me fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life. And often when I speak to young people, and I do that quite often, as often as I can, I talk about the value of being prepared about getting an education, learning your craft, learning your trade, your profession, you never know when the next George W. Bush is gonna come along and give you a once in a lifetime opportunity. And that’s one of the great things about our country.

Levick
So you know, I have to tell you, I’m so disappointed because I thought you were gonna say being on this podcast was the greatest experience of your life. But…

Judge Gonzales
I thought you were asking me about in government, but if you want to talk about after that…

Levick
So the you know, you’re at a faith-based institution– you and I are of different faiths about I always find that that the highlight of my day is reading different meditations every morning: Jewish, Buddhist nondenominational Christian, that it just really sort of stops us in our place and helps us look inside look at what we’re doing. And you know, I would have to imagine Belmont is just an entirely different experience than Washington.

Judge Gonzales
Well, there’s no question about that now, just so that everyone doesn’t have the wrong impression. You know, we at one time used to be officially connected to the Southern Baptist Convention, but we broke away from that, I guess, 20 or so years ago. But we still have a Christ-centered mission. That’s our mission. We don’t pray before class or anything like that, certainly not at the law school. In fact, in most colleges here, you don’t pray before class. We accept students that are not necessarily– you don’t have to be Christian, or you can be a different kind of faith than Christian and come to school here. So it’s kind of neat and different, to be able to pray before an event, to be able to pray before meal. And I think that’s one of the things that makes Belmont unique.

Levick
You know, for the record, I did pray before every class because I was always afraid of what the exam might be. So talk about– you know, I’m hesitant in some of the questions because it’s such a challenging political time right now. Let’s start with foreign policies. You look out there and some of the issues that you’re looking at. I know you teach national international affairs, and what are some of the issues that you’re identifying right now that people need to be particularly sensitive to?

Judge Gonzales
Well, clearly, the two foreign policy challenges are China and Russia, as far as I’m concerned. Also, things that we should be concerned about is domestic terrorism. So I know working in the White House today, we would be focused on obviously Russia right now in particular, but also China. And we also would be very focused on domestic terrorism and those are the things that we would be looking at quite a bit. Obviously, our world changed after 9/11. I was in every national security meeting as the White House Counsel. In fact, in many of those meetings, I was the only lawyer in those meetings. But we didn’t go to the situation room every day, we didn’t have a national security meeting every day, that changed after 9/11. We would meet in the morning with the President, and then we would meet in the afternoon with the principals committee in order to get ready for the next morning meeting for the President. So certainly work in the White House fundamentally changed after 9/11. And obviously, you know, we still live in a world I think where there are very serious threats against our country. I think we’re much better prepared to deal with them, but still, we should never lose sight of the fact that it’s still a very dangerous world. And part of the reason for that is we have autocrats like Putin, who believe they can do what they want to do. And it presents a real serious challenge for us. I’m asked questions a bit, a lot about Ukraine and what we ought to be doing. You know, in a perfect world, where I had perfect visibility into the mind and soul of someone like Putin, and would know how he might react, I would say we need to save the Ukrainian people, we need to do something more than what we’re doing now. But I also am very mindful of the fact that I think President Putin would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if he felt threatened in any way. And so I support what President Biden is doing in terms of pulling all levers of federal power, and encouraging our allies to do the same to put economic pressure. Will it be enough at the end of the day? I don’t know, I really don’t know. I admire the president of Ukraine very much in the public stance he’s taken and the comments he’s made. But at the end of the day, I think if you asked most experts, they probably would say if nothing’s changed, the calculation doesn’t change a bit. Over time, Russia is going to be successful. And then that puts us in a position of “well, what do we do at that point?” You know, I just don’t know, I think that’s very important for your listeners to always appreciate that unless you have security clearance and you’re involved in these negotiations and conversations, you really don’t know what’s going on and what’s possible. And I’m always mindful of when someone asks, “What do you think we should do?” I kind of tell you what I wish we could do. But I also know there is so much that I don’t know about our capabilities, and about Putin’s capabilities and really about what he’s likely to do and if in fact, he feels threatened.