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Holder has been a controversial figure. He reversed plans to hold terror trials in New York City, and House Republicans held him in contempt over the Fast and Furious scandal. He speaks with Elizabeth Dwoskin about the collision of law and politics.
You’ve spent a long time at the Justice Department in one position or another.
I’ve worked in a variety of jobs here over the last 36 years. This place formed me as a lawyer, probably personally as well, and influences a great deal of who I am. One of the things I learned is that you’ve got to deal with the underlying social problems if you want to have an impact on crime—that it’s not a coincidence that you see the greatest amount of violent crime where you see the greatest amount of social dysfunction. Where schools don’t educate. Where we see high levels of unemployment. We see men not involved in the raising of their children, and specifically, you know, their sons.
When you say the department made you who you are, what do you mean?
I was raised—professionally—in the Public Integrity Section. I started in 1976, stayed there for 12 years. It was formed after Watergate by then-head of the Criminal Division Dick Thornburgh, who ultimately became Attorney General. And what was brought home to me during my years there was, I saw a variety of public officials who, given the public trust, betrayed that honor. And it was kind of a chance to see—I guess you could call it the underside of government. So I came into the Public Integrity Section, I think, a pretty idealistic guy, and I saw a different part.
Obviously, the job of attorney general has become quite politicized.
There’s no question that there is a political component to this job, as with any Cabinet position. And I think that the department, because it is at the crossroads of law enforcement and policy, and social issues as well, it finds itself at the middle of a lot of political controversies. But that doesn’t really, from my perspective, shift what I think an AG’s focus has to be—the apolitical work that we do here, whether it’s enforcing the civil rights laws that have an impact on housing and policing, or what I’ve been focusing on recently in terms of a really vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. All things that I think are essentially apolitical but will be opposed by those who will try to characterize them as politicization of the department. I mean, that’s the most fundamental right of any American citizen. It’s a function of what’s probably the greatest piece of civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And so this is something that for me is personal.
Has this political atmosphere gotten to be too much? What would you change about it if you could?
I think people here in Washington nowadays see compromise as somehow inconsistent with an adherence to principle. So if there was something I could change, I think I might take us back a bit to a time when, for instance, Republicans were the ones who were responsible for the great civil rights advances that we saw back in the ’60s. You know, without Senator Everett Dirksen and the caucus that he led in the Senate, there probably wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act of 1960—a Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s what I have tried to focus on—dealing with threats to our national security, prevention of violent crime, financial fraud, and then also trying to come up with ways in which we protect the most vulnerable among us by focusing on the civil and fundamental rights of all Americans. That has put me in confrontation with certain people, certain factions.
The effort to try Guantanamo detainees in New York, for instance, didn’t work out as you’d hoped.
No, clearly it didn’t. I think that was really a missed opportunity. A lot of what we heard in opposition to trying to conduct those trials in New York City has proven or would have proven to be incorrect. We would not have closed down lower Manhattan. The trials would have been done by now. We would not have spent $200 million a year. Justice would have been served, and there would have been a credibility, an international credibility brought to the resolution of those matters by trying them in the civilian court system that has proven so effective at trying terrorists. I mean, we have tried—and the Bush administration, as well—hundreds of people in the civilian court system, those people charged with terrorist offenses—and have successfully prosecuted them and done so in a way that has held out our court system as the best in the world.