By Carrie Johnson and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
July cannot be counted as the warmest of months for Eric H. Holder Jr. The attorney general clashed with Congress over national security policy, fielded complaints from federal judges upset with bungled evidence and, in the most painful indignity, cracked his tooth.
Then came a bombshell three days ago that has sent Washington political circles reeling: Holder's inclination to appoint a prosecutor to examine whether interrogators tortured terrorism suspects during the Bush years. The disclosure has exposed him to new scrutiny even among colleagues in the Obama administration, where views about unearthing divisive episodes from the past are hardly uniform.
All of that took a back seat yesterday when Holder, 58, arrived in his home town of New York for a rousing speech to the NAACP, where he had served as an intern decades ago. Seated between civil rights icon Julian Bond and the group's president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, at a luncheon during the organization's centennial convention, Holder was lauded by the crowd as a symbol of pride and progress in his ascent to becoming the nation's first black attorney general.
Before he took the stage, a woman shouted, "I got your back."
"That's a good thing to hear today," Holder replied.
The attorney general is, by all accounts across political and legal spectrums, one of the best-prepared people ever to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer. It was, friends say, his lifelong dream to occupy the same office as Robert F. Kennedy and as Janet Reno, for whom he worked as second in command in the Clinton administration.
And yet former colleagues around the District -- in the Superior Court, where Holder was a judge; in the U.S. attorney's office, which he led in the 1990s; and at Covington & Burling, a firm where he practiced after leaving the Clinton Justice Department -- say they are watching him age before their eyes.
Always lean, Holder has dropped weight from his lanky frame, as he eats less and climbs five steep flights of stairs to his office in a routine that leaves younger aides breathless. His dark hair is graying, and his forehead displays new lines. He travels constantly, sometimes boarding an airplane three times a week even as he fends off a persistent sinus infection and a bad back. He struggles with working long hours away from his three children and his wife, prominent D.C. physician Sharon Malone.
"Under normal circumstances, the attorney general is one of the hardest jobs in government," said Reid Weingarten, a prominent D.C. lawyer and longtime friend who sat directly behind Holder at his marathon confirmation hearings in January. "There is a constant stream of impossibly difficult policy, case-related, bureaucratic and personnel decisions crossing your desk every minute. Add to it Guantanamo, torture, protecting the public during this unprecedented financial meltdown, and the job of restoring the Justice Department's credibility, and you get some idea of the pressures Eric faces every day."
Five months into his tenure, criticism of Holder is now coming from multiple directions, including conservatives who portray Holder as soft on terrorism and at times hypocritical, as in his controversial decision to overrule department lawyers on the constitutionality of the D.C. voting rights bill. A bipartisan group of lawmakers this summer restricted the Justice Department from bringing suspects detained at the military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, onto American soil, tying Holder's hands as the one-year clock for closing the prison in January ticks down.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, last month pronounced himself "disappointed" with Holder's performance.
"I do not believe your actions have matched your promises," Sessions said.
At the same hearing, Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) praised Holder for an "impressive start" and for showing "great courage in the face of political pressure" on Guantanamo Bay.
Sessions's sharp words came even before last weekend, when Holder signaled he was leaning toward naming a prosecutor from inside the Justice Department to examine whether CIA interrogators crossed legal lines set out by Bush lawyers in their handling of terrorism suspects. The inquiry, if it proceeds as expected within a few weeks, is designed to be narrowly confined and would not conflict with messages from President Obama about following the facts and the law where they lead, according to a senior Justice Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is at a delicate stage.
Government officials went out of their way yesterday to portray the relationship between Holder and the White House as professional, even cordial. Holder has acknowledged a warm if not close relationship with Obama, for whom he co-led the vice presidential selection process. The attorney general has attended White House celebrations for the Super Bowl and Independence Day. But he does not exercise with the president or otherwise socialize with the first family.
The president is a lawyer and a former law professor, which infuses his interest in the work of the department. At a news conference honoring his first 100 days in office, Obama spoke with ease about one of the most vexing legal issues of the early administration: when the government will invoke the "state secrets" privilege in a bid to dismiss civil cases filed by those who allege rendition, warrantless surveillance and torture. A department review awaits release while the White House formulates a policy directive, according to legal sources.
At times, Holder also has found himself boxed in by the political left, where old friends such as Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) have been urging him to release a biting ethics report on the conduct of Bush lawyers who approved detainee waterboarding and sleep deprivation. On the other side, congressional Republicans batter him for changing course on civil rights enforcement from policies established during the Bush administration.
"From what I've heard, he's working like a dog," said James Cole, a Washington lawyer who met Holder in 1980, when they worked together as "puppy prosecutors" in the department's public integrity unit. "The issues he has on his plate are fascinating and frustrating. He's got all the tools to do it, but those are really tough issues. They give you . . . the bad menu of options and you get to pick."
In New York yesterday, however, old friends vied for a closer look at Holder, and the banquet hall erupted with a standing ovation as he appeared and spoke for nearly 15 minutes about the importance of personal responsibility.
"So as we celebrate the magnificent success of the NAACP's first century, let us recognize that the next century will be less about changing our laws than about changing ourselves," he said at one point. "Ten years ago, I addressed the NAACP's convention and expressed my view that we must begin to insist again that everyone be held accountable for his or her own actions. 'Personal responsibility' must once again become the constant refrain and the guiding principle of our society. A decade later, I believe this to be true now more than ever."
As has become his custom in recent weeks, the once loquacious Holder took no questions before returning last evening to Washington.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.