Politics
11:19 am
Fri April 27, 2012

Holder: 'More Work To Do' Before Term Is Over

Originally published on Fri April 27, 2012 1:05 pm

Attorney General Eric Holder — the first African-American to hold the nation's top law enforcement job — is in the homestretch of his first, and probably last, full term in the post.

And after more than three years on the job, Holder is in an unusually reflective mood. He's thinking about the country's ongoing struggle over civil rights and what he wants to accomplish in his last months of government service.

Looking back at the arc of his career — which includes nearly 30 years of government service — Holder says he's achieved his highest goal: leading a Justice Department that shaped him as a lawyer and as a person.

"It's also the last time that I'm going to be employed by the United States Department of Justice," Holder told NPR in a rare and revealing interview. "I've been a part of the department since 1976 in some form or fashion. And so it's been for me, in recent months, kind of a contemplative thing."

For a guy with a lot on his mind, the attorney general is still moving awfully fast. This week, NPR joined him on a trip to Little Rock, Ark., for a speech and a visit to the troops.

A Trip Into The Past

In Little Rock, Holder leaped out of a black Chevy Suburban as fast as his long legs would carry him. As usual, his staff trailed far behind.

With her high heels clicking on the concrete floor, press secretary Tracy Schmaler noted: "This is also part of the glamour — running to catch up."

She did catch up, at the entryway to the Clinton Presidential Library, where Stephanie Streett was waiting to give Holder a tour.

Streett, the executive director of the Clinton Foundation, was a familiar face. She was in the White House when Holder served as a top Justice Department deputy during President Clinton's second term.

Holder's visit to the presidential library in Little Rock — his first — put him face to face with the past, including pictures of the Clintons on Inauguration Day.

"This seems like yesterday, doesn't it? I mean, I remember this like it was yesterday," Holder said.

The attorney general lingered, wordless, over footage of Bill Clinton's campaign speeches. He had more to say in front of an exhibit about the Little Rock Nine — black schoolchildren who tried to integrate Central High School in 1957, only to be met by violent mobs and soldiers blocking the door.

The federal government intervened, a key civil rights moment for Holder. "These are the folks who make Barack Obama possible, Eric Holder possible — them and people like them," he said.

Having 'The Conversation'

But every generation has its own civil rights struggles. Holder knows that all too well.

He said the killing in Florida this year of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin prompted him to sit down and talk with his own teenage son, an experience he shared for the first time publicly.

Before the Martin incident, and the outcry that followed, Holder said, he didn't think he'd have "the conversation" with his son. But he changed his mind.

"It brought back to me experiences that I had as a young man: getting stopped by the police on the Jersey Turnpike, getting stopped running to a movie in Georgetown by the police simply because I was running to get to a movie," he said. "I was mad, I was angry, I was humiliated. But I didn't do anything to put my safety at risk. And that's what I tried to convey to my boy."

Follow police instructions, however wrong you think they might be, Holder told his son, and don't let anger guide your actions.

"It's a sad thing that my father had to have that conversation with me, that I thought I had to have that conversation with my son," he said. "We are a nation that's made great progress, great progress — the fact that I'm the attorney general of the United States is an indication of that. But we still have some work to do."

Behind The Scenes

It was a busy day in Little Rock. This time, Holder was headed to meet with about 70 people waiting for him in the U.S. Attorney's office, where an official reminded the audience about the pomp and circumstance. But Holder didn't stand on ceremony here.

"This is about the 60th U.S. Attorney's office that I've had a chance to visit," he told the crowd. "I think we're at 58, 59, maybe 60 — something like that. And for me, it's a great opportunity to interact with the men and women of the Justice Department."

Holder wasn't just speaking for himself; he's also an envoy of his president, Barack Obama, who happens to be his friend. And Holder let the lawyers in the crowd in on a bit of that dynamic.

"I serve a president who is, among other things, a great lawyer," Holder began, "and he spends a great deal of time, great deal of interest, focused on the Justice Department, which is a good thing. Most of the time." The crowd laughed.

"It also means that he takes a great interest — former law professor and all that, great lawyer — in particular matters that we are doing. Not inappropriate. I'll send him a memo or something and go to the Oval Office to talk about it," Holder said. "And he'll dig through his stuff on his desk, and he'll bring out the memo that I sent over, and it's got red stuff underlined. ... 'Are you sure you're reading that case in the right way? What about the dissent?' And you think, 'Oh, my gosh.' "

Ups And Downs

Another piece of behind-the-scenes information: Holder is frequently sighted at Apple stores in Washington, D.C. — even though his Justice Department is suing Apple over alleged antitrust violations in the pricing of e-books.

"Well, I hope this will not have any effect on my personal relationship with Apple products," Holder told NPR. "I am a proud holder of an iPhone, an iPad, an iPod, a Mac."

And as of last weekend, on one of his regular visits to an Apple store, Holder said, "They still seemed to be happy to see me there."

Other moments have been not so happy. One of the most prominent: Holder's decision to try the men who plotted the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, which got overruled by the White House after a political firestorm. Those men will finally face arraignment May 5 at the military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"I'm still convinced that the initial decision that I made was the right one, that we could have held those trials safely" in his hometown of New York, Holder said.

These days, Holder's thinking more about the future. His oldest daughter is leaving home this fall for college in New Orleans. And he said his days in the government are numbered too, as he heads to the finish line.

"But I think there's still, you know, there's more work to do," he hastened to add. "Although I've become contemplative ... I'm not going to glide through the tape. I want to run through it."

Still on the agenda: protecting voting rights; holding BP accountable; and defending national security.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour with a rare and personal glimpse of the man who leads the U.S. Justice Department. Attorney General Eric Holder is the first African-American to hold the nation's top law enforcement job. And after more than three years on the job, he's in an unusually reflective mood. Holder is thinking about the country's ongoing struggle over civil rights and about what he wants to accomplish before he leaves government service. This week, NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson travelled with Holder for some insight into his thinking.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Eric Holder is looking back on the arc of his career. After nearly 30 years of government service, he's achieved his highest goal.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: It's also the last time that I'm going to be employed by, you know, the United States Department of Justice. I've been a part of the department since 1976 in some form or fashion. So it's been for me, in recent months, kind of a contemplative thing.

JOHNSON: For a guy with a lot on his mind, the attorney general is still moving awfully fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

JOHNSON: I hopped into a van and joined a motorcade that carried him to Little Rock, Arkansas, for two days this week for a speech and a visit to the troops. Here's the first thing I saw: Holder leaping out of a black Chevy Suburban as fast as his long legs would carry him. As usual, his staff trailed far behind. Press Secretary Tracy Schmaler:

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

TRACY SCHMALER: This is also part of the glamour - running to catch up.

JOHNSON: They did catch up at the entry way to President Bill Clinton's library, where Stephanie Streett was waiting to give him a tour.

HOLDER: It's good to see you.

STEPHANIE STREETT: Welcome.

HOLDER: It's good to be here.

STREETT: We're so excited to have you here.

HOLDER: Well, it's great to be here.

STREETT: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Streett is a familiar face. She was in the White House when Holder served as a top Justice Department deputy during Mr. Clinton's second term. His visit to the presidential library in Little Rock - his first - put him face to face with the past: pictures of the Clintons on inauguration day.

HOLDER: This seems like yesterday, doesn't it? I mean, I remember this like it was yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I'm here to tell you I want your vote, and I will not forget about New Hampshire.

JOHNSON: The attorney general lingered, wordless over footage of Mr. Clinton's campaign speeches. He had more to say in front of an exhibit of the Little Rock Nine. They were black schoolchildren who tried to integrate Central High School here in 1957, only to be met by violent mobs and soldiers blocking the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) story of the Little Rock Nine and the (unintelligible) story...:

JOHNSON: The federal government intervened - a key civil rights moment for Holder.

HOLDER: These are the folks who make, you know, Barack Obama possible, Eric Holder possible.

JOHNSON: But every generation has its own civil rights struggles. Holder knows that all too well. He says the killing in Florida this year of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin prompted him to sit down and talk with his own teenage son - an experience he shared for the first time publicly.

HOLDER: It brought back to me, you know, experiences that I've had as a young man: getting stopped by police on the Jersey Turnpike, getting stopped running to a movie in Georgetown by the police simply because I was running to get to a movie.

JOHNSON: He still remembers how that felt.

HOLDER: I was mad. I was angry. I was humiliated. But I didn't do anything to put my safety at risk. And that's what I tried to convey to my boy.

JOHNSON: Follow police instructions, however wrong you think they might be, Holder told his son, and don't let anger guide your actions.

HOLDER: It's a sad thing that my father had to have that conversation with me, that I thought that I had to have that conversation with my son. We are a nation that's made great progress, great progress. The fact that I'm the attorney general of the United States is an indication of that. But we still have some work to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

JOHNSON: It's a busy day in Little Rock. This time, Holder is headed to meet with about 70 people waiting for him in the U.S. attorney's office.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And just FYI, proper protocol, when he enters the room is to stand. And if you refer to him or get the opportunity to speak with him, proper reference is General or Attorney General Holder, so.

JOHNSON: Holder doesn't stand on ceremony here.

HOLDER: This is about the 60th U.S. attorney's office that I've had a chance to visit. I think we're at 58, 59, maybe 60, something like that. And for me, it's a great opportunity to interact with the men and the women of the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: Holder is not just speaking for himself. He's also an envoy of his president, Barack Obama, who happens to be his friend. And he lets lawyers in the crowd in on a bit of that dynamic.

HOLDER: I serve a president who is among other things a great lawyer. And he spends a great deal of time, great deal of interest focused on the Justice Department, which is a good thing - most of the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOLDER: It means that he, you know, I think I'll send him a memo or something, go to the Oval Office to talk about it. And he'll, you know, dig through his stuff on his desk, and he will bring out the memo that I sent over that's got red stuff underlined, you know, oh, oh. Are you sure you're reading that case in the right way? What about the dissent? You know, you think, oh, my gosh.

JOHNSON: Something else from behind the scenes: One thing people may not know about you is that you're kind of a gadget freak. And there have been many sightings of you in Apple stores around the Washington, D.C., area. The Justice Department is suing Apple. How do you square that?

HOLDER: Well, I hope this will not have any effect on my personal relationship with Apple products. I am a proud holder of an iPhone, an iPad, an iPod, a Mac.

JOHNSON: But the attorney general says his department wants to protect people who buy e-books. It's focused, he says, on getting the most competitive prices for consumers. And that's why Justice sued Apple. So you're hoping you're still on a first-name basis with the guy at the Apple store.

HOLDER: As of last weekend, which was after the lawsuit, they still seemed to be happy to see me there.

JOHNSON: Other moments have been not so happy. One of the most prominent: Holder's decision to try the men who plotted the 9/11 attacks in New York City, which got overruled by the White House after a political firestorm. Those men will finally face arraignment next Saturday at the military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

HOLDER: I'm still convinced that the initial decision that I made was the right one, that we could have held those trials safely.

JOHNSON: These days, Holder is thinking more about the future. His oldest daughter is leaving home this fall, for college in New Orleans. And he says his days in the government are numbered too, as he heads to the finish line.

HOLDER: But I think there's still, you know, there's more work to do. Although I've become contemplative, I still understand that, you know, I'm not going to glide through the tape. I want to run through it.

JOHNSON: Left on the agenda: protecting voting rights, holding BP accountable and defending national security. Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.