News & Politics

How Gonzales Destroyed the American Dream

Gonzales loved to tell the story of his rise out of poverty -- a Latino version of the American dream. But it is that same dream that he and his backers helped destroy for many Americans.
Alberto Gonzales went down dreaming.

While announcing his resignation earlier this week, Alberto Gonzales deployed one of his most powerful and romantic rhetorical weapons. "I often remind our fellow citizens that we live in the greatest country in the world and that I have lived the American dream," he stated. "Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."

More than any public official in recent memory, the often smiley and sometimes smirking Gonzales -- and his supporters -- consistently framed his story as a brown embodiment of the American dream.

His rise from "extremely poor" circumstances in his hometown of Humble, Tex. became the stuff of small-town mythmaking and tear-inspiring speeches in Washington corridors, especially on those occasions when he had to be confirmed -- or rebuked -- by Congress.

During Gonzales' nomination, Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a fellow Texan, said, "The nomination of Judge Alberto Gonzales to serve as our nation's 80th attorney general -- and our first of Hispanic descent -- is the American dream come true."

Following the Tejano Horatio Alger script, many -- but not all -- of the leaders of the largest Latino organizations lent their credibility to the Gonzales dream story. Hector Flores, former national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) called Gonzales "the American dream personified." Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), said his was "a compelling American success story."

As we watch the Gonzales' compelling personal story wind down to a tragicomic resolution, it becomes clear that the meaning behind his smile and the moral of his story has nothing to do with whether or not he expanded the American dream (he didn't). It has everything to do with manipulating his story while he did the dirty work of defending powerful interests against the death of the dream.

Rather than look at his story through the looking glass of political and media spin, it is best to view the story from the vantage point of its authors: the rich and powerful.

Viewed from the optic of elite political and corporate interests, who know better than anyone of the death of the American dream (they are, after all, the ones who created and killed it), Alberto Gonzales did his job.

He may have left too much evidence of state-sanctioned torture and lying and malfeasance and corruption (he may also still be put on trial for perjury in the attorney firing scandal).

But he did what he was supposed to. More than anyone, he was responsible for securing the legal systems necessary to better control a citizenry that was increasingly angry and frustrated at big government and big business for destroying the American dream. his saga provides an object lesson in how to hide elite interests behind a dreamy haze of real-life ethnic success stories.

While many of us were debating whether or not the son of migrant workers was or wasn't the embodiment of the dream, he worked loyally -- as fiercely as his farm worker parents -- to lay the legal foundation to make it easier to snoop on, arrest, prosecute and jail a population growing less and less patient with the status quo.

In the time it took most of the country to admit that it no longer believed in the dream -- a July poll by veteran pollster Celinda Lake found that only 18 percent of people in the country believe they are living the American dream -- Gonzales prepared for the fallout by helping fashion the Patriot Act. This made it easier for government to define as "domestic terrorists" those who choose to speak out against the Iraq war and other dream (and budget)-killing policies.

While Hollywood and Washington tried to keep the global dream machine working, Gonzales crafted the legal rationale for the global nightmare exemplified by Abu Ghraib. As more and more people joined the ranks of the uninsured -- 9 million since Bush was elected in 2000 -- Gonzales facilitated the government's ability to access intimate medical, financial and other personal records.

As banks foreclose on the homeownership part the American dream, Gonzales worked feverishly to set up the conditions to keep the now thoroughly politicized Justice Department in the business of denying fundamental rights like habeas corpus and jailing more citizens and non-citizens, especially blacks and Latinos, than any other country.

If the country takes a more democratic direction, future retellings of the scandal-laden Gonzales tale may institutionalize the storyline about a Tonto-like, up-from-the-bootstraps friend falling on the sword for a failed administration.

But if history continues along the conservative, even reactionary, course favored and advocated by many in the Bush-Cheney era, smiley Gonzales may yet have the last laugh as we continue to live under the boot of unprecedented legal structures designed to rein in what the elite haves clearly consider a threatening -- and rapidly growing -- populace of have-nots.

What the ultimate moral of the Gonzales story becomes depends on whether we are ready to not just to accept the death of the American dream, but to take part in dispelling whatever illusions of it are left.

Principal among the illusions still held by many Latinos, for example, is the old-school practice of ethnic politics propped up by many major Latino organizations, most of whom stood by Gonzales until March of this year before saying they were "reconsidering" their support for him.

Like the immigrant rights activists still seeking basic rights for the undocumented, Latinos must draw on the traditions of justice in our newspapers: Latino papers like Los Angeles' La Opinión and New York's El Diario/La Prensa denounced Gonzales from the beginning. And their pages have, for many years, told thousands of stories about poor migrants and their children making a difference.

Compare that with Hispanic magazine's designation of Gonzales as the "Hispanic American of the year" in 2005, well after he became the person most responsible for policing, prosecuting and jailing more Latinos -- including poor farm workers -- and non-Latinos than anyone in U.S. history.

Despite the tragedy and comedy of it all, Gonzales' scandalous story offers us an opportunity to dispel obsolete notions, like the dreamy idea that government is looking out for the little guy -- or that ethnic politics can only be played one way -- and other dangerous ideas rooted in the American dream he embodied.
Roberto Lovato former director of CARECEN, representing Central American immigrants and refugees, is a New York based writer and an associate editor at New America Media.
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