EMMITSBURG - White House Chief Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales tried to convince a group of graduates at a Roman Catholic college in Western Maryland that he deserved his place as their commencement speaker yesterday, despite having advised then-Gov. George W. Bush on legal issues that sent some Texas inmates to their death.
"I really didn't know what would happen," said Gonzales, who feared students and staff at Mount St. Mary's College might renew their protest of his appearance. The Catholic Church opposes capital punishment, and some on the campus have denounced his selection as speaker.
But the Mount St. Mary's spotlight was much softer than the national media spotlight last week on a memo Gonzales had written in 2002 that some had suggested might have paved the way for abuse of Iraqi prisoners. In an interview yesterday, Gonzales said linking his memo to events in Iraq was baseless and "silly speculation."
Gonzales got off to a rocky start with some of the 360-plus graduating seniors during his speech, sounding more as if he were trying to convince himself - rather than the students - that he should be there.
Saying he had "precious little time" to travel two hours to give advice to people he doesn't know and will likely never meet again, Gonzales wondered aloud what possessed him to come.
"In the beginning, I wasn't quite sure what it had to do with graduation," said Rachel C. Schlotterbeck, 22, of Hampstead, who is the first in her family to graduate from college. "But I guess he had to defend his position with all the uproar and protests."
Gonzales came under fire this month from Mount St. Mary's professors and students, 61 of whom signed a petition contending he wasn't fit to be their speaker because he didn't set a good Catholic example on the issue of the death penalty when he was general counsel to Governor Bush, whom he followed to the White House.
But college President Thomas H. Powell, who accepted Gonzales as surrogate speaker after President Bush declined, said the debate could be good for the college and allowed the speech to go forward. Gonzales was not given an honorary degree.
"Usually people learn through controversy," Powell said in an interview, calling Gonzales a "stand-up guy" and Mount St. Mary's students strong proponents of social justice.
In his speech, Gonzales said he determined he had something to learn from the visit as well as teach, prompting him to attend and deliver 10 "life lessons" he picked up on his way to the White House, growing up in Texas, the son of a migrant-worker mother and a construction-worker father.
"Do what's right," he told the students, "do your best," "love your family," "serve your neighbor and your country," "have fun and find love," "believe in miracles," "honor your church and nurture your faith," "be tolerant," "take risks" and "make a difference."
About the time he got to lesson five, Schlotterbeck said, she began to warm to his words, and so did her aunt, Elizabeth Riley, who whooped later when her niece accepted her diploma. During Gonzales' speech, tears ran down Riley's cheeks.
"Hearing what he had to say, how could anyone question that he would not be someone to be here?" asked Riley, who teaches at Sacred Heart of Mary Parochial School in Glyndon.
For the most part, the group was polite and appreciative, although some were still upset by Gonzales' presence. They would have been equally upset with Bush's, pointed out Patricia Kreke, chairwoman of the science department. She had signed the protest petition and wore a sticker over her robes yesterday that read "Execute justice, not people."
Kreke suggested the college should have spent more time scrutinizing speakers but accepted that the day was going to be one of "agreeing to disagree."
That attitude made Gonzales' visit more comfortable. For his part, he said he learned the liberal arts college was populated with "open-minded and generous" people.
He hasn't found such generosity in some of those who are saying that a Jan. 25, 2002, memo he wrote set the stage for abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
"There is no evidence to show any correlation," Gonzales said yesterday, annoyed that the draft memo - which was meant to advise the president to forego Geneva Convention rules in dealing with al-Qaida and Taliban members - was receiving such attention. The final version, he pointed out, contained different language than that quoted, although its message was essentially the same: Offering courtesies to captive al-Qaida terrorists would be "reverse incentive."
But that does not apply to Iraq, Gonzales said. "Everyone expected that Geneva [rules] would apply in Iraq."
The topic was off-limits for Californian Michelle Dodson. Her son, Nick Dodson, 23, had just received his bachelor's degree in communications and she was setting aside her personal opinions to concentrate on his achievement.
"That's not what this [day] is about," she said of Gonzales' situation. "We're here for the kids."