Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. first signaled his exit from office so long ago that every reporter and pundit who covers the Department of Justice has stockpiled enough copy assessing his tenure to fill a mattress. Like Derek Jeter, Holder announced his farewell tour this past February, telling the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin that he would depart in 2014. The admission prompted journalists to update and fine tune their critiques of the attorney general with emerging details, the way obituary writers tweak their pre-written obituaries of famous, old people to keep them fresh and newsy.
To paraphrase Marcus Raskin, the law is just politics frozen in time. Every attorney general applies the heat gun to the solid mass of law in hopes of melting and refreezing it to serve his boss, be he a Republican president or a Democratic president. These efforts naturally earn them disparaging comments from the opposing party, giving reporters the opportunity to plug in modular language like this passage from today's New York Times story about Holder's resignation: "He … emerged as the primary political antagonist for a Republican opposition in Congress that viewed him as dismissive of existing laws and contemptuous of its oversight of his department." Republicans, the Times continues, "once voted to hold Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress." Deeper in the piece: "Conservatives spent years attacking Mr. Holder’s integrity, especially over the Justice Department’s botched gun-trafficking operation called Fast and Furious."
Page back to August 2007 to the coverage of the resignations of the two very Republican attorneys general serving under President George W. Bush, and you find similar language in the Times. The paper reported that Alberto Gonzales' "tenure has been marred by controversy and accusations of perjury before Congress," adding furious foot-stomping by congressional Democrats about Gonzales’ oppressor ways. Upon the departure of Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004, the Times account called him "one of the most high-profile and polarizing members of the Bush Cabinet." The paper quoted a law professor saying this of Ashcroft: "We had an attorney general who treated criticism and dissent as treason, ethnic identity as grounds for suspicion and congressional and judicial oversight as inconvenient obstacles."
More perhaps than any other Cabinet officer, the attorney general attracts attention and criticism from politicians and the press. Hobbled with more laws than he has prosecutors to enforce, the AG must perform daily triage if he hopes to put a dent into crime. Republican attorneys general tend to tilt against civil liberties and in favor of Wall Street, while Democratic attorneys general tend to tilt against civil liberties and in favor of Wall Street. I kid here, but not that much.
Holder's press notices Friday morning rough him up for continuing, some would say accelerating, the previous administration's national security state. Holder, the Times reminds us, approved the National Security Agency's phone-records sweep, supported the FBI's right to electronically track cars without a warrant, subpoenaed journalists and their phone records, and defended the president's right to kill American members of Al Qaeda. The Times captured Holder's duplicitous approach to civil liberties when it noted that he supports proposals that would limit the NSA's power to seize phone records while declining to say why he accepted those powers in the first place. If Ashcroft and Gonzales had had a child together, they would have named him Eric Holder and bragged about his accomplishments.