Mr. Nice Guy: Eric Holder Jr.

By Daniel Klaidman
Monday, December 21, 2009; 9:00 AM

Dick Cheney has been a constant thorn in the Obama administration's side, which bewilders Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. "There's a part of me that doesn't really believe that he believes what he's saying," Holder says. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Klaidman spoke to the nation's top law-enforcement officer about critics, staying humble, and the threats to the nation. Excerpts:

KLAIDMAN: The last time I saw Sharon [Malone, Holder's wife], she had this to say about you...

HOLDER: Uh-oh.

KLAIDMAN: "He sees himself as the nice guy, but when he leaves the nice guy behind, that's when he's strongest." Accurate?

HOLDER: That's an interesting quote. I think that I try to be a consensus builder, but that ultimately what drives me is a sense of responsibility and a desire to do what's right, and if that means I have to do things that people are going to find unpopular, I'm prepared to do that. Like ordering the preliminary investigation into torture.

KLAIDMAN: You leave the nice guy behind when Rahm Emanuel's around?

HOLDER: I can always be nice with Rahm. He's always nice with me.

KLAIDMAN: Since we're on the subject of being strong, your critics think that you and this administration are not tough enough on terrorism.

HOLDER: Those comments are belied by the facts. We have disrupted plots where we have found them. There are things that we have done we can't discuss, but which have been successful. We've spent a huge amount of time and energy in making sure that we are prepared for what our enemies might try to do next. We have done things that [our critics] might not have thought were right, but [that] we think ultimately will make the American people more safe, like closing Guantánamo.

KLAIDMAN: I'm going to read a quote from President Obama. This is the National Archives speech: "We uphold our most cherished values, not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national-security asset." By that definition, did Vice President Cheney's vision make us less strong and less safe?

HOLDER: I think we are strongest when we adhere to what has always made this country great, adhering to the rule of law, following our moral precepts, and we are weakest when we have failed to do that. Great presidents have sometimes deviated from that path. Roosevelt did, with regard to the internment of the Japanese. Lincoln did, to some degree, with regard to the whole question of suspending habeas corpus. And I think the past administration, though they were under enormous pressure after 9/11, made some mistakes.

Is that a yes? Did those policies make us less strong and less safe?

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