President Obama’s announcement of the resignation of Eric H. Holder Jr. as U.S. attorney general was a deeply personal event. The nation’s first African American president was bidding adieu to the man he elevated as the nation’s first black chief law enforcement officer. And if you didn’t know it before yesterday, you certainly know now that the men and their families are close friends. You not only saw the bittersweet emotions of both the president and his attorney general, but you also felt them.
The extraordinary moment at the White House yesterday took me back to a moment I experienced with Holder last year. The image of this attorney general is one of forceful and unwavering resolve in the face of persistent and withering Republican criticism and even an unprecedented congressional vote of contempt against him in 2012. But on this particular day in his office, I observed that the emotions the nation saw yesterday lingered just below the surface. Within an hour of our meeting, I raced to a nearby restaurant to write down what happened. The moment was too powerful to me to entrust to memory.
Holder gave me a tour of his very lived-in office. Memorabilia everywhere. Lots of pictures. One of him at Normandy taken by his former communications director, Tracy Schmaler, he said, was his favorite. There is also a picture of himself with his favorite basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And there’s a photo of his three favorite boxers, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and the other escapes me at the moment.
But there was a series of four photos that caught my attention at his door. It was Holder interacting with a little boy. In one photo, Holder is seen kissing the crying boy on the head. It was from a Drug Enforcement [Administration] memorial event in May 2009, he told me.
As Holder talked about what was happening in the photos, his voice cracked. The family [two boys and their mom] was having a hard time with the loss of their father and her husband. The young son was too young to comprehend what was going on. But, Holder said, the other one was a little bit older and understood the gravity of losing his father.
Holder paused several times recounting that story. Tears were visible in his eyes as we stood side by side. He was able to regain his composure. But when his press secretary Adora Jenkins asked him what he told the little boy, the halting voice and tears reappeared. He said he told the little boy that his father was a hero and that everything would eventually be okay.
After all that Holder has been through, that he is so easily moved by something that happened [then-]three years earlier was telling. As with many things in his office, those photos are a reminder of why he’s in the job he’s in.
Holder loves his job. He takes his duties and responsibilities seriously. He revels in as much as he is humbled by his role in this nation’s history and efforts to have our nation be true to its ideals. And we saw it all in high relief at the White House yesterday.
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