Gonzales' tour stop bit rocky at UF

In Gainesville, the former U.S. attorney general draws boos, protest and applause.

Published November 20, 2007

GAINESVILLE - Embattled former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was a few minutes into his speech Monday night when the first two protesters took the stage, their heads covered and hands tied behind their backs like Abu Ghraib prisoners.

One of the young men stood silently beside Gonzales, who looked down at his notes and waited for two police officers to lead him away. Then came a young man in a military fatigue jacket, who stood directly in front of Gonzales with a sign declaring: "Habeus corpus."

As another officer led that protester offstage, Gonzales told the audience: "Our young men fight overseas to preserve these kinds of freedom of speech."

So began Gonzales' first stop on a nationwide college speaking tour. During an hourlong speech and question-and-answer session before about 1,000 students and community residents on the University of Florida campus, Gonzales was unflappable as critics booed and supporters countered with applause.

He urged students to go into public service and told them never to forget it is a "privilege" to live in the United States. Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, spoke of his own rise from the "son of a Mexican cotton picker and a construction worker" to White House counsel and then the country's top law enforcement officer.

He defended his record as President Bush's legal adviser and as attorney general, saying: "It will take years for the entire story to be told. We know the first manuscripts of administrations are often incomplete, and they can be inaccurate, and they have to be discarded."

The speech was one of Gonzales' first public discussions since he left the White House in September amid controversy.

His White House tenure was marked by questions over his endorsement of harsh interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects; his role in promoting a government eavesdropping program; and most recently, the level of his involvement in the allegedly partisan firing of several U.S. attorneys.

But Gonzales on Monday said his only regret as attorney general was that he did not have a "better process" in place for "changes in personnel at the U.S. attorney rank."

"The process should have been handled in a different way," he conceded.

He insisted the Justice Department does not condone torture, but he suggested that al-Qaida members who do not adhere to the rules of war are not entitled to the full protections of the Geneva Convention.

Accent, UF's student-run speakers bureau, paid Gonzales $40,000 from student fees.

"Accent's goal is to bring controversial, prominent figures to the university to educate students," said Kristen McIntosh, Accent's press relations director. "Given his situation, we jumped at the chance."

As White House counsel after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gonzales supported legal policies that expanded the executive branch's powers and allowed the imprisonment and interrogation of terrorism suspects under conditions that some critics labeled torture.

In February 2005, Gonzales replaced John Ashcroft as attorney general.

Under Gonzales, the Justice Department issued a little-known opinion endorsing even harsher interrogation strategies by the CIA. Among them: head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures, according to the New York Times.

Critics said Gonzales, an unapologetic Bush loyalist, turned the Justice Department into an arm of the Republican-led White House. But the loudest calls for Gonzales' ouster came more recently, when leading Democrats questioned whether he lied under oath about his role in the dismissals of several U.S. attorneys.

His speech drew about 1,000 people, many of them students, to the 1,700-seat performing arts center. This month, Bill Nye the Science Guy's visit drew so many people that the overflow crowd watched him on projectors outside.

Student Zach Moller, 20, vice president of the College Democrats, said, "$40,000 is an awful lot to pay for a speaker. U.S. Sen. John Kerry came to speak for free. This is a little ridiculous. UF should not be condoning this."

But Bryan Griffin, 19, of Tampa, said it's "about time" UF brought a Republican speaker. He edits a conservative student weekly magazine.

Gonzales and the agency that brought him had several demands for his appearance.

The Greater Talent Network, which negotiated his appearance, originally sought to exclude any media that didn't have written permission from the agency. But the speakers bureau nixed that request, insisting on "reasonable access by the press." Anyone who wanted to ask a question had to fill out an index card and give it to the moderator, UF law professor Henry Wihnyk.

Gonzales' speech was the first high-profile political event on campus since the September visit by Kerry, D-Mass., whose speech was marred by the Taser incident involving student Andrew Meyer.

UF police and Gonzales seemed intent on ensuring nothing got out of control Monday night. UF spokesman Steve Orlando said several people were ejected, and two were arrested and charged with disrupting a public function.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.