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Why Eric Holder is such a punching bag

June 12, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. testifies on Capitol Hill.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. testifies on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)

Besieged Attorney General Eric Holder (“Besieged” is almost part of his official title these days) told the Senate Judiciary Committee today that he’s not sure whether he would remain in his post in a second Obama administration. If he did leave, it would deprive conservatives of a favorite punching bag.

Holder has antagonized the right on a litany of subjects, from Fast and Furious to the New Black Panther Party to hobnobbing with Al Sharpton to his lecture about how Americans are cowards in discussing race.. Unhinged conservative Internet  commenters constantly complain about Holder’s descriptions of African-Americans as “my people” and The Wall Street Journal recently ran an over-the-top editorial accusing Holder of pursuing a political “racial incitement strategy.”

Yet some of Holder’s actions also give pause to those of us who prefer an attorney general who keeps a lower political profile.

Maybe because I cut my teeth as a journalist in the Watergate era, my own ideal AG was Ed Levi, the former University of Chicago president recruited by Gerald Ford to restore the Justice Department’s reputation after that scandal.  Others, I know, lean to the Bobby Kennedy model of an attorney general who is deeply invested in the political agenda of the president (even if he’s not related to him). The problem with the AG-as-confidant approach is that it also describes John Mitchell, Ed Meese and Alberto Gonzales.

Holder has been somewhere in the middle. He’s no John Mitchell, and on some issues – notably terrorism trials – he admirably has taken positions that caused the administration political grief. On the other hand, like Bobby Kennedy (though to a lesser extent), Holder was active in the campaign of the president who appointed him. He also has used the AG’s office as a bully pulpit for homilies about not only race relations but the right to vote and the administration’s opposition to measures that allegedly  suppress turnout.

One of Holder’s audiences was an event sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Conference of National Black Churches that featured panels on the state of voting rights, protecting a church's tax exempt status and energizing constituents and congregants to vote. Although Holder’s speech was unimpeachable, his appearance in that venue made it easy for Republicans to convict him of guilt by association with groups whose preference in the presidential election isn’t hard to guess.

The U.S. attorney general is an awkward hybrid: part supposedly apolitical lawyer, part member of the Cabinet. The alternatives to presidential appointment of the AG are worse: an elected AG (a disaster at the state level) or a Civil Service “director of public prosecutions.” But if he gets a second term Obama could save himself, and Holder, some grief by looking for a lawyer who would be less of a lightning rod.

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