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Besieged Atty. Gen. Eric Holder will leave a mixed legacy

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., expected to depart next year, leaves a record strong on civil rights but weak on political savvy.

December 25, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. prepares to testify in February before the Republican-led House Oversight Committee on the Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation. Demands for more documents led the House to vote him in contempt of Congress.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. prepares to testify in February before the… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — Eric H. Holder Jr. was sworn in as attorney general four years ago with probably more on-the-job training, credentials and expertise than any of the 81 others who have run the Justice Department.

He joined its Public Integrity Section as a trial lawyer fresh out of law school, and later served as a federal judge and U.S. attorney in Washington. By the late 1990s, he was deputy attorney general. Sworn in for the top post in February 2009, Holder seemed made for the job.

But what many supporters and critics say he did not bring to the office — which oversees 110,000 employees, undercover terrorism investigations, anti-drug efforts against Mexican cartels, public corruption prosecutions and civil and financial matters — is what may go down as his legacy.

As a top Cabinet official in a new Democratic administration, they said, Holder rarely showed the political stomach or developed the political skills to deal with an often strident Republican-led House that fought him over issues of border security, terrorism prosecutions and undercover gun operations. Last summer, the full House voted to hold him in contempt of Congress.

Republicans might have attacked any Obama administration attorney general, but Holder has also disappointed some of his natural allies on the left. They point to his frequent out-of-town trips — many of them abroad — and say he lacked visibility, and impact, in the job at home.

After four years as the nation's top law enforcement official, Holder often appears weary and disheartened, according to several of his colleagues at "Main Justice," as the Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters is called.

With his departure likely next year, after a replacement selected by President Obama is confirmed, that lack of presence and political gravitas may be what is best remembered about his tenure.

Two others with longer political pedigrees have surfaced as potential replacements: Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security and former state attorney general and governor of Arizona, who is said to be vying for the job; and Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts and a former assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration.

"It's natural for the attorney general to be a lightning rod. He is going to be a political target," said William Yeomans, a fellow in law and government at American University who spent 26 years in the Justice Department. "And some will make the argument that he wasn't politically savvy and steeped in politics. He was just a DOJ guy and believed in the department, and where he got in trouble was in part because of politics and political issues."

Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general for legislative affairs and a friend of Holder, agreed that politics was Holder's undoing. "He's a big boy and understands that a huge piece of this was political gotcha," Raben said of the contempt vote. "And now comes his legacy. How does he deal with that ...?

"I wish I could tell you he didn't think it was personal," Raben continued. "No one could not take it personally. But most of the time he felt incredibly blessed that he had the opportunity to serve as the nation's top law enforcement official."

Holder's successes have been many.

During and since the recession he has been tough on mortgage fraud and healthcare schemes, going after con artists who prey on the elderly, the ill and homeowners badly underwater in their mortgages. He has taken on police departments in Phoenix, New Orleans and other cities where allegations of corruption and abuse have long gone unchecked.

In Florida, South Carolina and Texas, his civil rights team has gone to court to challenge voter identification laws that Holder and the Obama White House say would prevent many poor and minority citizens from casting ballots, even as conservatives complained he was just trying to make it easier for more liberals to register to vote.

His setbacks have been many too.

Holder emerged as the frontman for Obama's pledge to close the prison for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to try the five alleged Sept. 11 plotters in a federal courtroom near the former World Trade Center site in New York. Both efforts failed. The prison is still running, and the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others is being handled by a military commission there.

After first announcing both initiatives, especially moving the trial to New York, Holder found himself flat-footed without White House political backing when a bipartisan, though mostly Republican, group of New York elected officials blocked the transfer.

Many believe that although Holder firmly supported the move — and still thinks it was the right thing to do — he was hung out to dry for more than a year before being forced to announce at a news conference that the administration was dropping the plan.

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