Editorial: Rights and wrongs under Eric Holder


With Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.’s resignation, President Obama faces the loss of someone who is not just a legal advisor and Cabinet member. He is losing a close friend who has often dared to say what one suspects the president himself was thinking but was unwilling to speak aloud.

Holder is the first African American ever to serve as attorney general, and he got the job, of course, from the first African American president. Almost from the first moments of the administration, however, the president has skittered around fractious conversations of race while Holder has engaged them squarely, if not always skillfully.
It was Holder who, just a month into the new administration, challenged the notion that the U.S. was genuinely an ethnic melting pot; on matters of race, he offered, it was “essentially a nation of cowards.” It was Holder who fumed at his treatment by a House committee and suggested that members were hard on him and the president because of their race. It was Holder, not Obama, who traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to help calm a community riven by riots after a white police officer shot a young, black man.

The trip to Ferguson may have been ill-advised — it placed Holder in the dual role of assuaging anger at the police department while supervising a presumably impartial investigation into whether that same department was violating civil rights laws. But his stalwart determination to confront injustice has been a strength as well. Among other things, he has defended embattled voting rights, pressed hard for marriage equality and initiated an important overhaul of federal drug sentencing laws.
There were plenty of disappointments during the Holder years. He tried to put Khalid Shaikh Mohammed on trial in New York, then pulled back in the face of congressional opposition. He tiptoed around the financial crisis, led overzealous attempts to punish officials who leaked to journalists and was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with an investigation of gun trafficking at the border. Holder’s close relationship with Obama — they often vacation together — fueled suspicion among their critics that the attorney general has failed to vigorously pursue allegations of governmental wrongdoing, from the gun trafficking case to the claim that the IRS targeted conservative groups.


Most of those allegations are nonsense, and serve as a reminder that Holder has spent much of his tenure in combat with shrill partisans. That’s not his fault, and his irritation with those critics has been understandable. Like Obama, he’s faced obdurate, unreasonable opponents; also like Obama, though, he’s occasionally deserved their criticism.

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