Eric Holder vs. the Powerful
Eric Holder, Barack Obama's choice to be attorney general, is a veteran of Washington wars in which victors are loath to take prisoners, let alone pity the vanquished. So the former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, D.C. Superior Court judge and Clinton-era deputy attorney general knows he's in for a dusting up when he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings. For that, he can thank the role he played in President Clinton's 2001 pardoning of fugitive financier Marc Rich. It was not Holder's finest hour.
His confirmation as the nation's top lawyer is still expected. But knowing Holder as I do, I suspect he must be smoldering over one particular charge that has been swirling around his nomination: that he is a Washington sycophant who can't say no to power.
If Holder prides himself on anything, it's his integrity and independence. His friends in the legal community share that view of him. I've heard from some of them recently.
They cite his stance on Kenneth Starr's investigation of Bill Clinton. Holder, they say, urged Attorney General Janet Reno to expand Starr's probe to include Monica Lewinsky -- over the objections of powerful Democrats. Holder's advice opened the doors to the impeachment of a Democratic president.
They also say it's hard to stick Holder with a "soft on power" charge after he pushed for a special prosecutor to investigate charges that Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had lied in an Indian casino licensing case. The special prosecutor subsequently cleared Babbitt of any wrongdoing.
And what about U.S. Attorney Holder's 1994 prosecution of the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski? Holder advocates say that took independence, as did, they say, his prosecution of corrupt government officials when he worked in the Justice Department's public integrity unit. Fresh out of law school, Holder was busy sending corrupt FBI agents, a judge and officials from both parties off to jail.
In my own mind, Eric Holder established himself as a person of principal, an instrument of no one and a leader a willing to speak truth to power in a speech that he delivered 13 years ago on Martin Luther King Day: "Dr. King would be shocked and disheartened by the condition of his people in 1995, and I, for one, would be ashamed to reveal to him what we have let happen to our community."
Holder was referring to crime in the nation's capital and the fact that senior citizens were living under siege, youths were terrorizing adults and children were unsafe in "of all places -- school," he said. "We must realize that crime is generated by a lack of values that has largely gone unaddressed in our nation as a whole and in the black community in particular. Soaring unwed birthrates, absentee fathers and aversion to work, and unwillingness to embrace societal standards and time-honored discipline -- all of these factors have contributed to the problems we must now confront."
The critical point is that Holder -- well before Bill Cosby and Barack Obama -- set the standard for talking about problems in the African American community, without the usual temporizing and finger pointing at "others."
He demonstrated an independence from the "old thinking" prevalent at the time and a willingness to lay responsibility where it belongs, even at the risk of unpopularity.
Can't say no to power? Indeed.
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