It’s been our expressed view here that one unfortunate hiccup of the Obama tenure has been his apparent diffidence about the “black president” perception in the wider society, perhaps most notably dramatized in both first and second-term cabinets including but a solitary African American presence. Announcement of Eric Holder’s intention to resign as attorney general pointed up again the lone-wolf status he has had among the administration’s frontliners. Be that as it may, and even as speculation kicked off regarding his replacement, it needs be said that if President Obama saw fit to be served by only one cabinet-level person of color, we would just as soon have had Eric Holder be that choice.
Although it was no secret that Obama and his A.G. were close personal friends, Holder’s excellent credentials were such as to debunk any talk of his being nominated other than on merit. The Holder c.v. was probably as good as it gets, as far as acquired tools for service as the nation’s top law enforcement figure: work in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section; Judge of Superior Court, District of Columbia; United States Attorney, District of Columbia; Deputy Attorney General. His confirmation vote in the full Senate by a hefty majority was hardly indicative of the adversarial image of him that some on Capitol Hill would form.
One of the early tasks Holder set himself upon assuming the reins at Justice was restoring the department’s Civil Rights Division to robust guardianship and enforcement of what’s stipulated in the law, as opposed to the “unnecessary evil” the division had obviously become during George W. Bush’s administration. At a time when weakening of the decades-old Voting Rights Act was suddenly getting legs as part of a reactionary push from the right, Holder placed himself up front as a fierce defender of the right to vote. Which included seizing every opportunity to expose chicanery in the redistricting process that was used in some states to disenfranchise minority voters – as was done in Texas, affecting a bloc of millions of Latinos, Holder argued. His dedication to the principle of equal rights was no less evident in his standing up for same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues.
That there was no doubt a certain passion attending his engagement of civil rights matters in no way compromised vigorous pursuit and prosecution of wrongdoing across the full criminal justice spectrum. Alleged or accused terrorists and other perps of all stripes found no ready pass with this A.G. Even so, he was moved to introduce a “Smart on Crime” program that sought to reconfigure the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, so as to effectively eliminate what seemed inordinately harsh sentences for relatively low-level drug possession convictions – a system which penalized those on the lower rungs in a manner befitting kingpins of the drug world.
During his tenure Holder has favored a hands-on m.o. and much emphasis placed on his personal visibility throughout Justice Department operations. The visit he paid to Ferguson, MO in the height of the unrest there following Michael Brown’s senseless killing by a white cop was typical of the Holder style – personally offering reassurance that justice would be served.
True to form, once there were clear signals from Holder that protecting the voiceless and those whose rights ordinarily get trampled would be constantly in focus at his Justice Department, the bulk of the criticism directed at Holder tended to originate from the Republican/Tea Party sector. Especially after the anti-Obama Tea Party mania giving the GOP control of the House in 2011, Holder has had any number of spats with Republican lawmakers. Following the lead of the ultra-confrontational California Republican Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee, the House passed a largely party-line Contempt of Congress vote against Holder in 2012. He had refused to hand over certain documents relative to Fast and Furious, the Bush administration program that concerned U.S. weapons illegally trafficked to Mexican drug lords.
In an ABC-TV interview months later, Holder would say that the contempt vote didn’t affect him: “For me to be affected…I’d have to have respect for the people who voted that way. And I didn’t.” In a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 2013, Holder was again in the crosshairs of flamethrower Issa, commenting after another round of Issa’s typically incendiary discourse that, “It is inappropriate and too consistent with the way you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It is unacceptable and it is shameful.” Another House GOP firebrand, Louis Gohmert of Texas, attempted to reprise the contempt citation during his questioning of Holder at a hearing this year and found himself short-circuited by Holder’s curt “You don’t want to go there, buddy.”
Probably the notable non-right-wing attack line against Holder (no surprise, either, the conspicuous lack of uproar from that quarter) has been the failure to prosecute and demand prison terms for the greedy Wall Street sharks responsible for precipitating the Great Recession of 2008. It’s a scar Holder must live with, knowing the hurt inflicted on the lot of us by that devastating downturn. Overall, though, in Holder the president and, more importantly the people, were most ably served by a fearless and committed crusader for social justice.