Eric Holder’s challenge

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When Eric H. Holder Jr. comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday for confirmation as U.S. attorney general, he needn’t worry about a challenge to his qualifications. The panel has been deluged with testimonials to his intellect, integrity and experience. The harder question for Holder is whether his role as an advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign will hamper him in restoring trust to the Justice Department after its politicization by the Bush administration.

At another point in U.S. history, it would be unremarkable for a president to install a political advisor as attorney general. Sometimes, as with Robert F. Kennedy, presidential intimates have discharged their duties at Justice in a disinterested way. Others have placed their loyalty above the law -- in the case of John Mitchell, President Nixon’s attorney general, to the point of committing crimes. No one is suggesting that Holder would behave as Mitchell did in the Watergate coverup. Still, Watergate offers a useful analogy. After Nixon was forced out of office, President Ford chose as his attorney general a reassuringly nonpartisan figure: University of Chicago President Edward H. Levi.

Given the trauma inflicted on the Justice Department by “loyal Bushies” -- meddling by political operatives, the clumsy and politically motivated firing of U.S. attorneys, a partisan litmus test for nonpolitical positions -- Obama would have been wiser to follow the Ford-Levi precedent. Since he chose not to, the burden on Holder is to convince the Senate that he won’t be a kinder, gentler (and smarter) Alberto R. Gonzales.


On one issue -- Holder’s involvement in President Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich -- that promise must accompany an explanation of why he didn’t try to thwart an outrageous abuse of executive power. But that error isn’t disqualifying if Holder can demonstrate that he has learned a lesson and recognizes that the attorney general is the people’s lawyer, not the president’s lawyer.

That will require more than generalized assurances. The Senate should press Holder on the following questions: Will he continue Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey’s https:// “> of limiting contacts between Justice and the White House in connection with ongoing investigations? Will he resist pressure from political operatives or patronage-hungry senators to dismiss outstanding U.S. attorneys? Will he be straightforward about his own views, such as whether he considers waterboarding torture (a question dodged by Mukasey at his confirmation hearings)?

Positive answers can’t erase Holder’s past political activity; they can demonstrate that he is determined to leave his previous role outside the door of the attorney general’s office.