Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Before nominating Eric Holder to be his attorney general, President Elect Barack Obama quietly asked key Senate Republicans if there would be any potential confirmation problems with Holder’s nomination. Holder is his first cabinet pick and Obama wants to make sure that the pick will be hailed as a good one. The last thing he needs is a bitter, partisan, and contentious scuffle over Holder.
Holder’s legal credentials, administrative experience, and accomplishments are impeccable. As Clinton’s Deputy Attorney General, he got high marks for initiating community outreach programs to address domestic violence, hate crimes and child abuse, devising standards for criminal prosecution of corporations, and handling civil health care matters. He’s also touted for encouraging greater diversity and more pro bono work by attorneys. Holder drew loud cheers from civil libertarians when he told the American Constitutional Society in a speech earlier this year that he would restore the “rule of law” to the Justice Department; meaning that he’d reverse the worst civil liberties abuses by Bush’s Justice Department in the terrorism war.
Yet Holder’s sterling credentials are one thing, but politics is another. A political appointment to a top spot is generally a pro forma affair; it may be anything but that with Holder.
The immediate cause for some worry is Holder’s role in Clinton’s pardon of outlaw financier Mark Rich in 2001. Holder reportedly green lighted the pardon, but soon regretted it. He says he never would have said anything favorable about Rich if he had known the full details of the case. Prosecutors, the GOP and even Democrats pounded Clinton for the pardon. But Holder’s input on Rich was only one factor in Clinton’s decision to pardon Rich, and it was ultimately Clinton’s call.
That probably alone won’t assure a smooth sail for Holder through the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Holder nomination gives a badly mauled GOP a chance to show that it still has some fight in it and that it will not simply be a rubber stamp for Obama. Some conservatives indeed have said that picking a fight over some of Obama’s top picks might be a good way to show the troops that the party can regain some of its political footing.
The Rich issue is not the only skeleton that the GOP could attempt to rattle in Holder’s closet to get that footing. One is the claim that Holder routinely cleared Clinton’s brother Roger of any wrongdoing when he lobbied brother Bill to grant pardons for a drug trafficker and other high level crime figures. This charge will also go nowhere. Clinton did not grant the pardons. And Holder did not solely make the call absolving Roger Clinton of wrongdoing in the pardon cases. Top FBI officials and then independent Counsel Robert Ray also said that Clinton did not do anything illegal.
Another possible hit point is Holder’s lobbying on behalf of telecom giant Global Crossing after the company went belly up in 2002. Global Crossing incurred millions in debt. Back in June, the Republican National Committee first brought this up and claimed it would push to make it a campaign issue. The RNC didn’t say just what the issue was. It didn’t matter. The charge also went nowhere.
Then there is the Elian Gonzalez case. In 1999 Cuban leaders in Florida were furious at Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno for enforcing a court order requiring that the six year-old Gonzalez be removed from his relatives' home in Miami's Little Havana and returned to Cuba. As Deputy Attorney General, Holder took some heat for enforcing the court order.
The same year Holder drew more fire for his role in approving the clemency request for 16 members of the radical Puerto Rican independence group FALN convicted of a string of terrorist bombings and murders. The FBI, Bureau of Prisons and U.S. state attorneys opposed clemency for the 16. Holder refused to comment on what part he played in the clemency action.
Silence on the part of government officials is always taken as a sign by politically driven inquistors that an official has something to hide or is trying to dodge culpability for their actions when things go wrong. The FALN clemency issue could prove to be even more an irritant for Holder than the Rich case. In June, the RNC tried to stir up the pot on the FALN issue when it issued a press release urging the FALN clemency be made a campaign issue. There were no bites and the issue quickly died.
Then Holder was not an elected official, held no government office, and was only one of several top advisors to Obama. The talk of him being Obama’s pick as attorney general was just that, talk. However, he now is Obama’s pick and a GOP thirsting for anyone to target to make trouble for Obama may just see Holder as that target.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press January 2009)