When President Woodrow Wilson was casting about for an attorney general in 1919, his private secretary Joseph Tumulty wrote that the office “had great power politically … we should not trust it to anyone who is not heart and soul with us.”
Eric Holder’s great qualification for the job he has just resigned was that he was with the president he served — heart and soul.
His complicated role in Barack Obama’s administration was inextricably bound to race — he was the first African-American U.S. attorney general, appointed by the first African-American president.
Someday, another black president may name another black attorney to run the Department of Justice, and their shared identity may not matter so much. But for Holder and Obama, breaking the racial barrier as the nation’s top two law enforcement officers meant living with the consequences. It meant that countless points of conflict with their opponents would be cast in a racial light.
Whatever the motives of their adversaries, the confrontation would be seen in the context of American history. The drama would unfold against the interracial tensions that torment our culture.
Holder would look up at the majority party members in the House Oversight and Government Committee and see 22 white men and one white woman staring back at him. Memories would be stirred.
The issues of civil rights and voting rights affect all Americans, but in the popular imagination and common parlance, those phrases conjure images of black people. When Holder, in his resignation announcement, referred with evident emotion to the years of Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general, no one doubted Holder was talking about Kennedy’s work for the civil rights of African-Americans.
Many of the issues that confront the Justice Department and the legal system as a whole have a racial dimension. One of Holder’s most personal issues was the disproportionate length of sentences for black offenders. One of his best moments in office was his appearance in Ferguson, Mo., to calm the uprising over the fatal shooting of a black teenager.
In going to Ferguson, Holder was standing in for the president, whose effect on the situation might have been more complicated. In that sense, he had been “going to Ferguson” for the president throughout his time in office. He had the president’s back, whether the criticism came from one side of the color line or the other.
He was also the president’s surrogate in taking on the administration’s most thankless missions, such as the effort to try Sept. 11 conspirators in New York City. And he bore the brunt of the outrage for the decision not to indict major Wall Street moguls after the 2008 financial meltdown.
This past year, the House of Representatives, not willing to take on the chief executive through impeachment, chose to hold the attorney general in contempt. As controversial as many attorneys general have been in the past, none had been subjected to this particular rebuke. Indeed, no members of the Cabinet had.
In truth, Holder had done little to appease the anger that seethed on the Hill, at times making little effort to conceal his own animus. But he was also taking a larger hit for a larger target.
That has been a big part of the job description for attorneys general through the years.
2007 — Just seven years ago this month, President George W. Bush lost his attorney general when Alberto Gonzales resigned. In his case, journalists reported Gonzales had pressured and even replaced U.S. attorneys in several jurisdictions because they failed to find and prosecute voting fraud in the 2004 election. The presumption, never proven, was that Gonzales did so at the behest of the White House political operation.
2001 to 2005 — Bush’s first attorney general, former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, provided a bridge to social and especially religious conservatives — and a shield against their criticism. But Ashcroft refused to sign off on some of the electronic surveillance that Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration figures wanted him to approve.
1993 — President Bill Clinton had been in office for only a few months and his attorney general, Janet Reno, for just weeks when the FBI moved in on the Waco, Texas, compound of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians. Fire broke out and 76 people died. Reno endured grueling and accusatory congressional hearings for having approved the FBI’s decision to attack. She came to be seen as both resolute and immune to pressure, whether from Congress or the Clinton administration. In 1998, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to hold her in contempt over her refusal to hand over certain documents. That was the same committee that did the same thing to Holder, but in 1998 the House as a whole did not follow through with the citation.
1988 — President Ronald Reagan’s second attorney general was his longtime California associate Edwin Meese III. Meese had come to Washington with Reagan and served in the White House as a counselor with Cabinet rank, moving to Justice for the second term. He resigned in August 1988 as a special prosecutor was investigating his ties to a company that had paid bribes to Israel to protect a pipeline it was operating in Iraq. Meese was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but stepped aside to spare embarrassment to Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was just then accepting the GOP nomination for president.
1973 — As the Watergate scandal spread through his administration, President Richard M. Nixon tried to quiet criticism by replacing his attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, who had presided over some of the original investigation but failed to quiet the storm. Nixon brought in the ultra-respected Bostonian Elliot Richardson in May. In October, he ordered Richardson to fire independent prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was pursuing the case aggressively. Richardson refused and resigned. Nixon then told Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. When he also refused and resigned, Nixon found his man in Robert Bork, then the No. 3 man at Justice. Bork fired Cox, but served less than three months as acting attorney general. Nixon resigned the following summer.
1919 — When Wilson was reading his note from Tumulty about a new attorney general, he was utterly consumed with preparations for the Versailles Peace Conference that was to redraw the world map following the end, just two months earlier, of what was called The Great War. The attorney general job would go to A. Mitchell Palmer, a former congressman from New York and a member of the party’s national committee. Palmer would take office in March and soon become the target of two assassination attempts by anarchists. Thereafter he launched a campaign against radicals and what we would today call terrorists that included highly controversial searches and seizures remembered as the Palmer raids. Initially aimed at dangerous plotters, they were soon seen as suppression of political opposition by the Wilson administration.