Beyond His Tenure, Holder Hasn't Left The Civil Rights Fight
Former Attorney Gen. Eric Holder's career has been a series of firsts.
As the first African-American to serve as this country's top law enforcement official, he came into office in 2009 promising to rebuild the Justice Department's Civil Rights division.
There, he aggressively enforced voting rights, supported same-sex marriage and became a lightning rod for criticism from conservatives. In fact, Holder was the first sitting cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress in 2012 when he failed to deliver documents and testimony related to the "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation in Arizona.
His six-year tenure marked a first in another way: It was the longest term between an attorney general resignation and the time a successor was confirmed.
After stepping down as attorney general earlier this year, he returned to private practice as a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling. NPR's Michel Martin sat down with him to talk about his life and work since leaving office.
On the lengthy period between his resignation and naming a successor
I think it's an indication of the dysfunction we unfortunately see in Congress. You have to remember the Senate is controlled by a party that didn't like me – doesn't like me – an awful lot and yet they didn't have the ability to pull themselves together to confirm my successor. They had a bunch of extraneous issues that they had to try to work their way through that had absolutely nothing to do with the qualifications of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general. And I think it's a sad commentary on where we stand in Washington D.C. now. ... I think the Republican Party itself is divided in almost an existential way.
On the role race has played in this presidential administration
I think for some that was a component of the opposition but I think the larger part of it was political – and not even political so much as ideological. I think certain people on the other side identified this president as an effective progressive voice, and were determined to oppose him, fight him, wherever they could and that necessarily mean me at the justice department. ...
I think the toxicity is really a function more of ideology than race and the hyper-partisan atmosphere in which we now operate in Washington D.C.
On the president and himself being called divisive
The notion that Barack Obama is among the most divisive people or presidents that we have seen is utter nonsense. It's utter nonsense. This is a president who came into office with a desire to unite people. Let's think about it like the stimulus package and how he tried to construct a package at the beginning trying to deal with the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, reached out to Republicans, Republicans insisted that the package had to contain a certain amount of tax cuts — alright he gave in there — and then as I remember, not one Republican voted for the package. And that's just one example, that's kind of the way things started. I think this president, and I think I certainly did as attorney general, we extended our hands to try to work through things and were really kind of met with unprincipled opposition. It was all political. I mean, again, you know, their leadership said we're gonna try to make this guy a one-term president.
I think it's ideologically driven. There is a real desire to — I think a fear — a desire to stop this progressive movement that I think really is starting to take hold in this country and that challenges a lot of what they consider to be the norm, and I will say, almost arrogantly believe what is their right to govern in a certain way. This nation is changing, and the Obama coalition I think reflects better the 21st century than their governing philosophy.
On supporting Hillary Clinton as presidential candidate
I sat with her in the Situation Room. I have seen her deal with the issues that are going to confront the next president. She's got the necessary experience, she's got great judgment. She will come to the job on day one ready to do the job in a way that I don't think anybody else who's running for president on either side has the ability to do.
On what the rest of his career looks like
When I left, we had a White House ceremony and I said I would never leave the fight and that's still the way I feel. I'm here at a law firm that does a whole variety of things on the commercial side but my life is still going to be focused on dealing with voting rights issues. Our firm filed a brief against the state of Alabama for what they have tried to do with regard to voter disenfranchisement. I'm working on the creation of an institute, it's going to deal with civil rights issues. And I think I'll also find places in which I'll speak out about topics, hopefully using some of my notoriety to put a spotlight on issues. Actually I'll have an ability to speak in a way that's maybe a little more liberated than I could before. I'm not a member of an administration, I don't have to worry about administration positions and policies. I can speak really more from the heart.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to a newsmaker interview with someone who's been one of the most prominent and polarizing members of the Obama administration, former Attorney General Eric Holder. He was the first African-American to serve as this country's top law enforcement official. He's also one of this country's longest-serving attorney's general. When he came into office, he promised to restore the department's reputation for aggressive enforcement of civil rights laws and to move the country's approach to criminal justice in a different direction. He also became a lightning rod for conservatives. In 2012, he became the first sitting cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress for failing to deliver documents and testimony related to the Fast and Furious gun-running operation in Arizona. After stepping down earlier this year, he returned to private practice as a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling. And I visited him at his office in downtown Washington, D.C., where we talked about his life and work since leaving office. And we started by talking about his tenure and whether it was what he thought it would be.
ERIC HOLDER: Parts of it were. I mean, I grew up in the Justice Department, and so some of it was externally familiar. But the opposition and the vehemence of the opposition to some of the policy positions that we took in the administration I think took me by surprise.
MARTIN: What role do you think race played in that?
HOLDER: Hard to say - I mean, it was hard looking at people's hearts, their minds. I think for some, that was a component of the opposition. But I think the larger part of it really was ideological. And I think the hyper-partisan atmosphere in which we now operate in Washington, D.C., I think is really kind of the thing that was the driver. So I think it was really that - more ideology than race.
MARTIN: But if it is purely ideological then, then what's the relevance of your being the first African-American attorney general and the president being the first black president?
HOLDER: Well, I think it certainly is an indication of the progress that this nation has made. You know, for some people, race was a factor, but it's hard to quantify that. It is much easier for me to see the ideological positions that were taken and that I think were the drivers for so much of what they did and so much of what they say.
MARTIN: It's interesting because the conservatives blame the president and you for being the divisive ones. In fact, they used that term very often in connection with both you and the president - divisive and polarizing. And I just wonder, what do you think accounts for this very large difference of opinion about who is the one being divisive here.
HOLDER: Well, let's start at some basics here. I mean, the notion that Barack Obama is among the most divisive presidents that we have seen is utter nonsense - it's utter nonsense. I think this president - and I think I certainly did as attorney general - we certainly I think extended our hands to try to work through things and were met with really kind of unprincipled opposition. It was all political.
MARTIN: I want to go back to 2009, when you said famously, though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards. I want to ask what you think about that comment today. I wonder if you still believe it. And I do wonder if, in some ways, you think it was a mistake because this is one of the things that is cited when people say that you and the president - unnecessarily divisive and polarizing.
HOLDER: Well, I think this is still a nation that is unwilling to confront its racial past, still feels uncomfortable dealing with our racial present and is fearful of our racial future. So I think that what I said in that speech - and I think people need to read the entirety of that speech, as opposed to just that phrase because it's basically a pretty optimistic speech - but I think that too many people are still afraid of race and only deal with the issue when a racial issue flares up. There's a racial incident; talk about it for whatever the minimal amount of time is. And then, as I said in the speech, everybody retreats to their racial cocoons and no real progress is made.
So the fact that we are having these conversations - still not to the degree we need to, but we're having these conversations, that people are aware of racial issues and that creates tension and friction - I think that's good tension. I think that's good friction. And, you know, you asked earlier have we made progress? Well, I think, you know, one measure is what people say in opinion polls. But other ways of measuring progress is to look at programmatic things. If you look at where the criminal justice system is and where I think it's likely to be, substantial progress. You know, protecting voting rights - again, I think as a result of things that have been done in the administration, we have taken it to as good a place as you can.
MARTIN: OK, but this is outside of your particular area of expertise and your (unintelligible) but the fact is until this last election in Louisiana, no Democrat had won a statewide office in the South since this president took office. And Republicans now control more statehouses today than they did when he took office.
MARTIN: What does that suggest?
HOLDER: There's certainly been erosion there. But, you know, I'm not sure that looking at what happens in the South is necessarily a barometer of how well this president did or did not do. The South was lost to the Democratic Party, as Lyndon Johnson famously said, back in the '60s. And you will see change gradually there. I mean, North Carolina, Georgia - there will be other states that I think are going to be more purple than red.
MARTIN: In the time that we have left, I'd like to talk about the issue that I know is on a lot of people's minds, which is terrorism. Now that you've had a chance to think about it, given everything you saw, which is a lot more than most of us see, is there anything you changed your mind about over the course of time?
HOLDER: So I'll tell you one thing, there needs to be an acknowledgment by those who opposed my decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in an Article III court and to try generally to use our Article III courts in the fight against terrorism that those who opposed it have to say they were wrong. They were dead 100 percent wrong and that I was right. You know, this notion that we were going to use military tribunals has proven to be totally ineffective. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who we could have tried in New York, safely, would have been convicted, would be on death row right now, is still awaiting trial in Guantanamo. People have to remember the vehemence with which that decision was opposed. And I think all those people now who opposed that decision need to, you know, man up, woman up and say, you know, we were wrong.
MARTIN: Is there anything you've changed your mind about in how to address this - what has now become a worldwide problem?
HOLDER: No. I mean, I think - well, I think - I've certainly learned more. And I think that, you know, the notion of countering violent extremism by making sure that we reach out to Muslim communities is extremely important. I've learned that's something that our allies have to do to a greater degree than they have done in the past. I remember sitting with the Belgian justice minister - oh, you know, a couple of years or so ago - and she said that we had - they had problems with regard to the number of people who were leaving that country and going to Syria, Iraq and then coming back. And we now know proportionately Belgium has the biggest problem in Europe in that regard. And to put programs in place to deal with the isolation that so many in those communities feel, especially in Europe, you know, that's something that I think we have learned that is really important to do. There has to be, again, a military component, but we also have to deal with these underlying reasons why people do these irrational, irrational and horrible things.
MARTIN: Do you have a candidate for president?
HOLDER: I'll probably be supporting Hillary Clinton. I sat with her in the situation room. I have seen her deal with the issues that are going to confront the next president. She's got the necessary experience. She's got great judgment. She will come to the job on day one ready to do the job in a way that I don't think anybody else who's running for president on either side has the ability to do.
MARTIN: The Harvard Institute of Politics did a survey of millennials and their interest in politics and what they're thinking about right now. And what would you say to young people who say I don't want to - I just - I don't want to get chewed up like that. I just don't want to go through all of that. What would you say?
HOLDER: Well, I'd say first off, I didn't get chewed up. I'm still here. I'm still standing, I'm still talking. I grew up in New York City. And I'd oftentimes sit there in these congressional hearings and say really, is that it, is that the best you got? I mean, you think you're getting me with this? You know, come on, really? And I was able to maintain my calm most of the time. And then every once in a while, somebody would say something, you know, truly idiotic or offensive, and I'd have my little mini-Holder expulsion. So I would tell people that, you know, yeah, there's a price you pay for engaging in public life. But unless people are willing to run the risk of getting, you know, chewed up, to use your phrase, progress doesn't really happen. And what I'd say to millennials is unless, you know, you're prepared to put yourself out there, people who are less qualified, less committed, less idealistic will be the ones who will decide the fate of this country in the 21st century enough. And that's a bad thing.
MARTIN: Eric Holder is the former attorney general of the United States. He was kind enough to host us at his offices in Washington, D.C., at Covington & Burling. Mr. Holder, Mr. Attorney General, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HOLDER: All right, I hope this is just the beginning of a series of conversations we'll have. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.