Obama Loves Attorney General Eric Holder, and So Does the Times
Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder's reputation is on the mend (that is, if Times readers even knew it had been damaged). That's the thrust of Monday's front-page Holder profile by reporters Jodi Kantor and Charlie Savage: "Getting the Message - After 9/11 Trial Plan, Holder Hones Political Ear."
Last winter, when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called the United States a "nation of cowards" for avoiding frank conversations on race, President Obama mildly rebuked him in public.
Out of view, Mr. Obama's aides did far more. Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina, the White House chief and deputy chief of staff, proposed installing a minder alongside Mr. Holder to prevent further gaffes - someone with better "political antennae," as one administration official put it.
When he heard of the proposal at a White House meeting, Mr. Holder fumed; soon after, he confronted his deputy, David W. Ogden, who knew of the plan but had not alerted his boss, according to several officials. Mr. Holder fought off the proposal, signaling that his job was about the law, not political messaging.
A year later, he is no longer so certain. His most important plan - to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, in federal court in Manhattan - collapsed before it even began, after support from the public and local officials withered.
Now Mr. Holder has switched from resisting what he had considered encroachment by White House political officials to seeking their guidance. Two weeks ago, he met with advisers there to discuss how to unite against common foes. They agreed to allow Mr. Holder, who has not appeared on a Sunday talk show since entering office, to speak out more; he agreed to let them help hone his message.
The profile took a more personal and positive turn after that:
In interviews, White House officials uniformly conveyed support, even sympathy, for Mr. Holder. "He's in a very tough spot," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, who added that he would help Mr. Holder with a communications strategy only after the legal decisions had been made. "All he wants to do is bring these people to justice."
There's no mention in the 2,500-word story of the refusal of Holder's Justice Department to prosecute a clear-cut case of voter intimidation involving the New Black Panther Party at a polling place outside Philadelphia on Election Day 2008.
The Times fears Holder may be just too "genial" and pragmatic (that word again!) for sound-bite obsessed Washington - the same argument that the Times' Richard Stevenson used last month while puzzling over Obama's failed first year in office.
But his national security résumé is short, his genial temperament may be unsuited to political combat, and his approach to terrorism is guided more by case-specific pragmatism than an overarching ideology reducible to sound-bites.
"Eric is an on-the-merits guy," said Reid Weingarten, a Washington lawyer and a close friend from Mr. Holder's early days at the department, three decades ago. "Case by case. Does that work in a changing world?"
In person, Mr. Holder, 59, seems startlingly atypical of the species to which he belongs: star prosecutor, top official. He has little swagger, speaking softly with an earnestness leavened by wry humor. Interviews with him and more than 40 former and current colleagues suggested a man who has succeeded by playing against type: he is mild, self-deprecating, even eager to please. Informed by aides that this or that Republican has insulted him, he just nods or rolls his eyes.
The Times praised Holder's close relationship with Obama:
Asked why he wanted to be attorney general, Mr. Holder did not mention national security issues; instead he said he took the job to put a department he loves on track after scandals during the administration of President George W. Bush. Still, just after Mr. Obama's inauguration, the president asked Mr. Holder to lead the effort to resolve the fate of the detainees at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
It was not the first time Mr. Obama had entrusted him with a crucial matter. Mr. Holder has a longer, more personal relationship with him than most other cabinet members do. They are the first black president and attorney general, and yet neither is from a typical African-American background. (Mr. Holder's father and maternal grandparents were from Barbados.) They share Ivy League degrees, low-key natures and a love of long, intricate legal discussions.
Sounds like a blast.