The Private Life of Henry B. Gonzalez

WASHINGTON - Most days when Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez arrives at the House of Representatives' gym for a workout, he can't find a sparring partner.

The predicament forces the pugnacious chairman of the House Banking Committee to pump some iron and run on a treadmill instead - adequate forms of exercise for the solid 180-pounder, though they may not pack the excitement of ducking jabs and landing left hooks.

One might expect to see Washingtonians lined up for blocks, eager for an opportunity to paste the Texas Democrat. After all, in his two years as committee head, Rep. Gonzalez has bloodied plenty of noses with his bare-knuckled tactics.

Victims of his hearings include just about every federal banking regulator in the capital, not to mention convicted banker Charles Keating and the senators who came to be known as the Keating Five. Rep. Gonzalez went after President Bush's son Neil, raising questions about the younger Bush's alleged misdeeds as a Colorado bank director.

Some Democrats grumbled that Rep. Gonzalez was too tough on the Keating Five - four of whom were fellow Democrats - and not tough enough on Neil Bush. At one point, a clique of his fellow Banking Committee members moved unsuccessfully to have him dethroned as chairman.

Threat Thwarted in Texas

But none of Rep. Gonzalez's enemies appear ready to climb into the ring with him. The onetime amateur boxer is in still good enough condition at age 75 to mount a spirited defense. He proved it two years ago when his knuckles turned back a man in a San Antonio restaurant who called him a Communist and appeared threatening.

The genial chairman doesn't look like much of a threat, unless you happen to concentrate on his enormous hands, each about the size of an infielder's glove. He has a fleshy face and patriarchal approach that invites children to sit on his knee and their parents to vote for him year after year. According to his own accounting, he has never gotten less than 86% of his district's vote.

His loose-fitting clothes camouflage huge shoulders. And his gracious manner - he insists on using formal courtesies like Mr. and Mrs. - masks a formidable temper.

One reason he remains in such good shape is the Spartan life he leads in a city that many other politicians have found an irresistible Babylon.

"Henry is incorruptible," says David Maxwell, a Gonzalez admirer and former head of the Federal National Mortgage Association.

The congressman drives a beat-up car, lives in an average house in an average neighborhood in San Antonio, and has little money in the bank, having spent most of what he has earned helping his 8 children and 20 grandchildren.

"If I wanted to make money I would have gone into business, not politics," says Rep. Gonzalez, who was good friends with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and still champions liberal causes like housing and civil rights.

An Avid Reader

Staffers say Rep. Gonzalez is a workaholic who shuns the cocktail circuit, preferring to hole up at night in a small, rented room reading some of the 20,000 books he has collected. They are stacked against walls and crowded into closets. Some of the books were inherited from his father, Leonides, a former managing editor of La Prensa, a Spanish-language weekly based in San Antonio.

"When I started out in Congress, there used to be two or three embassy parties every night. I figured I'd end up an alcoholic if I just went to one of them," says Rep. Gonzalez, who neither smokes nor drinks. And don't expect to find him at luncheons or banquets, either. He likes to rise early and exercise, if his schedule permits. Then he eats a big breakfast, his only formal meal of the day - which drives colleagues crazy, because he seldom breaks hearings for lunch.

Weekends in San Antonio

On weekends, Rep. Gonzalez usually flies back to San Antonio - on a commercial jet - to be with his wife of 50 years. She tried living in Washington once and hated it.

At home he plays touch football with his grandsons and jumps rope in the backyard because he doesn't think it becoming for a congressman to run around the neighborhood in shorts.

He is a better politician than he was a boxer. One staffer repeats a story the congressman tells about seeing a particularly huge opponent climb into the ring to take him on; that day Rep. Gonzalez decided to go home without fighting. But "Enrique" - the Navy changed it to Henry in World War II - liked boxing more than politics. In fact, the very last thing Rep. Gonzalez wanted to become as a young man was a politician.

First he decided to be an engineer. His brothers had talked him into that career because they were engineers and had no trouble finding jobs during the Depression. By his senior year in college Rep. Gonzalez decided he was bored, so he went to law school. He worked as a censor for the Navy during the war and then decided he didn't want to be a lawyer, either. He wanted to become an FBI agent.

But after the war the FBI was laying off people. So when Rep. Gonzalez was offered work as a probation officer, which involved a taste of law enforcement, he took the job. His boxing road-work enabled him to catch any fleeing charges.

That job led to a public housing post and eventually to a seat on the San Antonio City Council. During the 1950s he became the first Hispanic in the Texas Legislature in 110 years. In 1961 he was appointed to fill an unexpired congressional term and has won 11 reelection contests since, mostly against token opposition.

Rep. Gonzalez smiles as he recalls his question to the man who first hired him as a probation officer: "Is this job political? Because if it is, I don't want anything to do with it."

PHOTO : THE CHAIRMAN: Few are willing to step into the ring with him.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.