All in all, Eric Holder was just another brick in the wall

September 26, 2014

U.S.  Attorney General Holder stands with President Obama after the president announced Holder's resignation at the White House in Washington

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.

At least until they heard about Holder’s civil rights record, at which point both would probably demand paternity tests. Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who could also be an Ashcroft-Gonzales love child, was quoted in the Washington Post saying Holder was “the most divisive U.S. attorney general in modern history” because of his practice of “needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement.”

Somebody should give Issa a talk show on the Fox News Channel or enroll him in some history classes. Has Issa never heard of John Mitchell of Watergate fame? A. Mitchell Palmer of “Palmer raids” fame? Or even Robert F. Kennedy?

On at least one level, Issa was right about Holder’s politicking. According to the Post, Holder rumbled with White House aides, notably Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, over where major terrorism cases should be tried. (Holder wanted the federal courts to handle the cases in Manhattan. Emanuel didn’t, and Emanuel won).

A less — dare I say it? — politically hyperactive Republican would have found a way to make common cause with Holder. I’m not saying Issa should be tossing garlands on Holder for battling against mandatory sentencing, for viewing the drug war though a civil-rights lens, for allowing the states to go their own way on marijuana, for favoring more liberal voting rights measures, or for sidestepping the Republicans’ “Fast and Furious” inquiries. Issa can be as angry as he wants to be about those policies. Holder even declined to prosecute both the CIA officers accused of torturing suspects after the 9/11 attacks and the officials who set the policies.

Whenever the law is unfrozen by politics, it can stay in that state for only a short time before politics demands its refreezing. Considered in its totality, Holder’s time as attorney general maintained the Bush administration’s legal philosophy on the largest issues, and in a style that Bush’s attorneys general must have admired. Trained to detect and amplify Washington’s marginal political differences, the press sometimes overlooks the obvious continuity of the permanent government.


“Law is the politics of the past frozen into ice blocks, which must be melted from time to time. Otherwise, law is the dead weight of the past on the present,” is the precise Raskin quotation. I think mine is punchier. Send punches via email to My Twitter feed is hot. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.


PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stands with President Barack Obama after the president announced Holder’s resignation in the White House State Dining Room in Washington, September 25, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Good news! Al Sharpton has been nominated to lead the Partment of Justice … lol -partment-of-justice

Posted by SammyStone2893 | Report as abusive

The article was very easy on Holder regarding Benghazi, the IRS, the NSA and Fast and Furious….oh and the fact there were no Wall Street criminal prosecutions. Quite a legacy he’s left behind. The man was a sellout and Barack Obama’s home-boy.

Posted by Yvo_Kerwar | Report as abusive

Gosh, what an empty article. Gosh, what an intricate attempt to blame anyone but Holder or his boss for any of the decisions they consciously (and stupidly) made. Gosh, what a curious place to try and worm BlameBush into the narrative. Gosh, what an empty article.

Posted by dannystrong | Report as abusive

“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.”

Great line.

Posted by jayman386 | Report as abusive

To find faults is easier than to find virtues.
Eric Holder was indeed a courageous lawyer.He has showed exceptional courage,rightly or wrongly in very complicate and controversial circumstances.
I wish him the best for his future.
her is not politics?! Politics is everywhere even with………!! Even if he wanted to exclude politics the force of political currents are so strong that any one will be drawn into it.He did his best what he could do.Again to criticize is easier than to appreciate.After all every one has to bake his bread.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Politics aside, Holder was not a particularly effect brick, or anything else. Lots of posturing, little performance.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

You didn’t mention the one thing that Holder did that angered conservatives the most: he was born with dark skin.

It’s good that Holder has said he will stay in office until a replacement is confirmed by Congress. Now all that Obama will have to do is nominate someone who is more white, and the Republicans won’t filibuster the confirmation.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

A brick in the wall? separating Law and Justice from Criminal activity in the name of partisan votes providing illegality a free ride and access to the American support system…. We have no Walls or even a border fence worth speaking of…. ‘One of my Turns’ happened all to often…

Posted by cyeager | Report as abusive

>>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.

A truer sentence has never been spoken. Well done, sir.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Holder could not separate himself from the politics of race and the inflammatory practices of attention seekers, like Sharpton. The law knows no color, but this attorney general was very liberal with the lamp black and was tied to the White House bizarre shenanigans. Time will expose his sliderule logic on many things that still haunt this country that he chose to downplay or shunt aside.

Posted by Art16 | Report as abusive

He was what his boss wanted, and that was a figure head who would not threaten to change anything. Obama has been on a quest to “not screw up” and in so doing has shied from all important changes that were desired by progressive liberals. Holder at best was a black guy and also didn’t screw up and at worst was a black guy who the GOP hated. He and his boss did little but occupy the positions. Granted, pursuing a true progressive liberal agenda would likely have gotten them both assassinated by the fascist forces within our secret police organizations. However, we wanted them to pursue a progressive liberal agenda. Who will do that? So great, we had a black president, and likely soon a women, but who will do the real work? It doesn’t look like the democrats really care. They must be frightened. Maybe they believe the rhetoric that is used to frighten the citizenry and keep them from seeking freedom. Maybe they believe the people shouldn’t have freedom. They certainly don’t look to really care about the people. The GOP does, yes, they want to enslave the people and they are doing a good job too.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

“Law is the politics of the past frozen into ice blocks, which must be melted from time to time. Otherwise, law is the dead weight of the past on the present,”

…so, by this argument, ANY law can be ignored or imposed depending on the current political winds / who is in power. Hitler would have loved this quote. The third world is full dictators who believe this and implement it ruthlessly.

You have a powerful public megaphone Jack. Is that really a message you want to send?

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

A BRICK in the wall or a HOLE in the wall of justice and the law? There has been so much flim flam over the past several years I find it difficult to decide which one.

Posted by Art16 | Report as abusive