Being Eric Holder
A few years ago, after bebopping onto a Philadelphia stage to address the National Association of Black Journalists, Attorney General Eric Holder reminded the delighted audience that he was "still Ricky from the block." Throughout his rise to the highest position in government to which a young and idealistic attorney can aspire, Holder has indeed stayed true to himself, the son of Sonny Holder, an immigrant from Barbados who raised his sons to achieve in ways he could not dream of for himself.
In part two of BET.com's exit interview with him, Holder discusses the highs and lows of his job, the importance of family and friendship, happiness and heroes.
You and the president were friends before you made history as the first Black attorney general and president. Has this experience changed or strengthened your bond?
Oh, I think it's strengthened it. He's still my guy.
We were fairly close before but given the shared experiences we've had, to see the way in which he's been unfairly attacked, to see the things he's had to take, I think has probably drawn us together. Our wives are very close, so I think that we will leave this whole experience better friends than we were when we began.
Were you surprised by the struggle and criticisms you've endured during your tenure, particularly from congressional Republicans?
Not necessarily. The job of the attorney general, certainly since Janet Reno was attorney general and I was her deputy, has been a difficult job to hold. It's a confluence of policy and the law and you can get people riled up for either. When you have them both operating at the same time, you have to be prepared to have a thick skin.
I think a lot of the criticism that came my way was unfair, unfounded, not factually based, but it's kind of the nature of Washington in the 21st century. So what I've tried to do is not focus on that but to focus on the work. What is it that ultimately is going to matter? What do I want my legacy to be? I don't think people are going to remember 40, 50 years from now the criticism that came my way that, again, is not factually based. What they're going to look at are the accomplishments of the Justice Department while I was attorney general. When it comes to that, I'm very proud about what the men and women in the department have done over the last six years.
Do you think Republican lawmakers were kind of surprised by how thick your skin is and how firmly you stood your ground with them?
I was born and raised in New York City. I was born in 1951, so I came of age in the '60s, when the best thing that a young Black guy could be was cool. That's a very formative time for a young guy, so from my perspective the cooler I could be, the madder I could see they were getting. So it was kind of a dual thing. I'm making them mad while at the same time I'm trying to be how I want to be.
But I also draw limits. You can say that I'm wrong on policy, [but] when you question my integrity, then we're going to go at it because then I'm my father's son – born in Barbados, hot headed – and you can say certain things, but if you go there, or if you talk about my family, then we're going at it.
There are tapes that will show that certain congressmen crossed the line and the cool Eric gave way to Sonny Holder's son and said, "No, don't go there, buddy. Don't go there."
What has given you the greatest joy and the most disappointment during your time in office?
The greatest joy is the interaction I've had with the men and women of the department as we've tried to craft policies to change the criminal justice system to reform it in a way that makes it more fair, more just and perceived as such. The policies we've put in place with regard to making our system more fair for people generally, dealing with the civil rights of lesbians and gays. …That's why they come to the Justice Department — to try to make this country better. And if you give them a certain amount of freedom, if you respect their creativity, I think you can make meaningful change and I think we have made meaningful change and I'm very proud of that.
And the most disappointment?
Again, I'd say not enacting gun safety measures after the massacre of those little angels in Newtown. That was the roughest I had it as attorney general: to go up there and meet with first responders and the crime scene search officers, the crime scene itself. The school had not been cleaned in any way. There was blood on the walls, blood in the carpets and a particular bathroom where the kids had been piled up. There were a lot of tears that day from these hardened, experienced police officers and from me as well as they took me around to [view] the different classrooms. I think about those brave adults who died trying to protect those kids. That was by far my toughest day that led to my biggest disappointment.
What is the most important piece of advice you have for Loretta Lynch?
I'm not sure that there's much that prepares you for the job. I will certainly talk to her and tell her to stay focused on her principles, focused on an agenda that I hope she's thinking about now, what it is she wants to do with the job. And to be unafraid. To simply understand that you are the attorney general of the United States. She's going to be the 83rd attorney general of the United States. You have these jobs for a limited amount of time. You're not there to be a bureaucrat; you're there to affect positive change. I think she's going to do a great job. She's very, very experienced. I've known Loretta for 20 or 25 years. I don't think anybody comes into this job more qualified.
Who are your heroes in real life?
Certainly my father, a man who never graduated from high school and was probably the smartest guy I've ever known. A person who had an innate sense of goodness and right and wrong, who did all that he could to sacrifice so that his sons would do better than he did. Malcolm X. The transformation of Malcolm from petty criminal to really a man of the world is somebody I admire a great deal. Martin Luther King, obviously, a person who, through the power of nonviolence, transformed the greatest nation on earth. [John and Bobby] Kennedy are people who inspired in me the notion that government service was a good thing.
Growing up in New York, I think about all of the athletes who, as a young guy, I came to admire. I think chief among them would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a guy who I think combined great athleticism with a keen intellect. And I always liked the fact that he stayed four years at UCLA [and] graduated with a B+ average. He's now a great author. And from my own perspective and for all you Michael Jordan fans – forgive me – he's the greatest ball player in the history of basketball.
What figure in history would you most like to meet?
That's a really interesting question and it's kind of hard to narrow that down. I think it would be interesting to talk to Abraham Lincoln. People of that era especially. Frederick Douglass. To have the ability to speak to him about the issues that he had to deal with. Booker T. Washington, W.E.B Du Bois. People in that mid-19th to early 20th century time are people who are of great interest to me because that was kind of my field of study when I was in college.
Michelle Obama has confessed to watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta. What is your guilty pleasure TV show?
Michelle watches the Real Housewives of Atlanta? Wait 'til I see her. I can tell you my guilty pleasure is substantially better than [that]. I like to binge watch television; it's something I got into a couple of years ago. House of Cards is something that I like to watch all at once. I thought that [Showtime's] The Affair was really well done and was glad to see it get as many awards as it did. Homeland is something I like to binge watch. But my favorite show is probably Mad Men and I'm sad that it's final seven episodes are coming up and it's about to leave television.
Guilty pleasure? Television watching. And if you can get me on my back porch, with a drink and some nice weather and be able to watch TV outside, that's as good as it gets.
Have you been watching Empire?
Not so far, but my wife has watched four or five episodes and says it's totally, totally addictive. When I have some time when I leave this job I suspect I'm going to watch Empire and Being Mary Jane. I saw a part of that and I thought that was really good. It's a substantive show that's done extremely well and presents some real-life issues that I think are resolved in interesting ways.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My kids. In some ways that's where I find my greatest pleasure. I live through their successes, [like] when my son has a good basketball game. He's 17 now and a junior in high school. I try to get to as many of his games as I can. And when he's had a good game I can see the joy in him and I feel what my father felt when I had a good game. I probably feel happier than he did that he did as well as he did by scoring whatever number of points, getting whatever number of rebounds.
Have you thought about what you're going to do when you leave?
I think I'm going to take some time off and kind of recharge my batteries. Catch up on a lot of TV that I've missed.
But then I also want to stay involved in what has animated my life and certainly my professional life. I want to stay involved in the movement in the 21st century. I've thought about an institute of some sort to deal with the whole issue of mistrust that exists between law enforcement and communities of color and try to come up with a way in which that gap might be bridged [and] deal with criminal justice issues more generally. To think about finding, maybe in conjunction with a university, some kind of a body that will look at those kinds of issues, do scholarship on those issues, bring people together so that hopefully it might have an impact on something I've focused on during my professional life for a good number of years and I think I'd like to use my remaining efforts to keep focused on.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: Lonnie Tague)