Eric Holder And The RFK Legacy

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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How to assess Eric Holder’s record and legacy as attorney general?

Let’s start with what should be an obvious proposition: Holder’s policies and approach to the job were consistent with the person who appointed him — Barack Obama. Lest Republicans forget, Obama was elected and re-elected to the presidency by large margins in 2008 and 2012.

As usual in this space, I ask readers to look at the facts, not political accusations or innuendo.

First, congressional accusations against Holder on the controversial “Fast and Furious” “gun walking” program have been proven factually wrong. According to a thorough review by the independent inspector general of the Department of Justice, Holder did not know about this program until Jan. 31, 2011, after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was tragically killed by one of the guns allowed to travel into Mexico. In fact, the same program was used under the Bush administration Justice Department, from March 2006 to December 2007. And Holder ended this program once and for all — and those at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives who were responsible for the program were either disciplined or have left the agency.

Second, Holder disproved his critics regarding his decision to prosecute terrorists in U.S. courts. Under Holder, the Justice Department won a criminal conviction of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law) and British Cleric terrorist Abu Hamza al-Masri in U.S. federal courts — in Manhattan, no less. Ghaith was sentenced to life in prison. Hundreds of other terrorist prosecutions resulted in guilty verdicts, proving that Holder was right that our system of justice is up to the task of convicting terrorists.

Third, and most important to this writer, is Holder’s approach to the job of U.S. attorney general, not only his tough prosecution of criminals but his dedication to vigorous enforcement of civil rights and equal justice for all Americans. For example, under Holder’s leadership:

  • The Civil Rights Division earned the most hate crime convictions in more than a decade.
  • The Justice Department is currently enforcing 12 agreements with law enforcement agencies for abusive police practices, including seven consent decrees — the largest number in the history of the department. He personally visited Ferguson, Mo., and is widely credited with helping ease tensions in the town.
  • Holder used his discretion as top prosecutor to cease defending Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2012, which had barred the federal government from recognizing state-approved same-sex marriages, a decision vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision in June 2013 in the Windsor case that struck down discrimination against same-sex couples as unconstitutional.
  • Holder sought to enforce the Voting Rights Act against states where legislatures passed laws impeding or suppressing the right to vote for non-fact-based and apparently political reasons.

In February 2014, Holder told a Human Rights Campaign audience:

“And so the Justice Department’s role in confronting discrimination must be as aggressive today as it was in Robert Kennedy’s time. As attorney general, I will never let this department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history. We will act.”

These words are reminiscent of the famous passage from RFK’s anti-apartheid speech in 1966 in Cape Town, South Africa, which eloquently described the impact of a single principled individual who stands up for justice: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Whatever one’s opinion of Holder’s policies, no one should doubt his deeply felt belief in Robert F. Kennedy’s words as an inspiration for his leadership as attorney general. As for me, I consider him to be one of the great attorneys general in this country’s history precisely because he focused on the word “Justice” in the name of his department and kept the faith with RFK’s legacy. 

Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.