What Happened to Eric Holder?

He was a Reagan-appointed judge and a Clinton-appointed prosecutor respected by both sides. Then it all fell apart.
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Nineteen years ago this month, Eric Holder was having a very different spring in Washington. It wasn't cruel or grueling. Conservatives didn't want his scalp and liberals didn't think he was trampling on civil liberties. In 1994, Holder was just into his tenure as the federal prosecutor for Washington, D.C. The 43-year-old had come to the U.S. Attorney's job with the credentials of a quiet careerist, joining the Department of Justice in 1976 and serving 12 years as a prosecutor before Ronald Reagan appointed Holder to be an associate judge in D.C. Superior Court in 1988.

As U.S. Attorney, Holder took over the prosecution of Dan Rostenkowski--"Rosty," the Boss, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And Washington asked: Would this tall, thin, mild-mannered guy who everyone knew at the courthouse be able to put Rosty away--especially now that Holder had been appointed by a Democratic president who needed the lawmaker behind the passage of so many bills? Rosty's lawyer, the famed Bob Bennett, knew Holder, understood how tough he was and begged his client, the Chicago pol, to take a deal. Rosty refused and fired Bennett. That was a bad idea. Holder issued a searing 17-count indictment for everything from putting ghost jobs on his payroll to embezzling from the House Post Office. "Today's indictment of Congressman Rostenkowski should stand as a firm and solemn reminder that the Department of Justice has an unwavering commitment to hold accountable all those who engage in corruption," a much less gray Holder said in front of the microphones. Rosty eventually pled out and went to jail. Holder had distinguished himself that day as the Democratic prosecutor who took out a leading Democrat.

Of course, Holder now seems distinguished primarily by the mob out to get him. Arianna Huffington wants his head. So does Rep. Pete King, the New York Republican. And plenty of Democrats wouldn't mind seeing him go. He's been slammed for everything from the botched "Fast & Furious" case that left a Border Patrol agent dead to a warrant that named a Fox News reporter as a potential co-conspirator in a leak case. Thursday was a typical day for Holder. Holder's testimony before a routine Senate Appropriations Committee hearing for the Justice Department's budget was overshadowed by his announcement he would not seek Rosen's prosecution and defending but not explaining the revelation of a massive subpoena of phone records from Verizon.

The celebrated young man has become a bruised 62-year-old. Yes, his stewardship of the department includes many accomplishments from defending the health care law to putting terrorists behind bars. Yes, he still has the lean looks of the Columbia University basketball player he was. But now Holder's got that Washington-is-slowly-killing-me look, too. Still, the president still stands behind his close friend so no one close to Holder expects him to leave anytime soon--maybe the end of this year or the beginning of 2014 and only after the national security team is settled in and there's a new FBI director. But whenever he goes, Holder will leave with many friends scratching their heads over how a talent who came of age at the Justice Department and spent more time working in its halls than any attorney general in modern memory could have had such a rocky tenure.

The answer is that no one thing led to this moment. It's a combination of many factors including the impossible life of an Attorney General. Janet Reno, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales--all had targets on their back and only Michael Mukasey, who came in at the end of the Bush years to clean up, was exempt and that's because he was there so briefly. The bigger problem, though, may not be the job but Holder's own inability to navigate the political shoals within his building as well as the world outside--Congress, the media and, ironically with a White House where he enjoys the closest personal relationship with the president of any Cabinet member.

"He's not very political, contrary to popular belief," observes Joseph DiGenova who was also the U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C. A prominent Republican, a Washington fixture, and a fellow Reagan appointee, DiGenova has known and liked Holder for decades. He endorsed Holder for A.G. and said he'd do it again. But DiGenova also sees a number of missteps -- most notably Holder's failure to navigate the politics within "Main Justice," the term of art for the department's headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue where zealous careerists can put an attorney general in jeopardy. DiGenova believes Holder should have stood up to the department's Criminal Division's unprecedented naming of Fox News's James Rosen as a co-conspirator instead of signing off on it. DiGenova chides Holder for refusing to turn over more documents to House investigators in the Fast & Furious case, which led to a contempt citation against Holder. He notes that department lawyers always advocate turning over as little as possible but an attorney general needs to know better. By contrast, DiGenova hails Holder's dropping the federal corruption case against the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska as the attorney general's "finest hour"--a time when the AG knew how to rebuff the overzealous careerists in the Public Integrity Section where Holder had begun his career.

Other friends and colleagues of Holder, most of whom declined to speak on the record for fear of angering Holder or hurting him, echo the notion of Holder as politically tone deaf and not having the right kinds of people around him to help deal with explosions that are inevitable. After all, the attorney general stands at the crossroads of terrorism, war, race, civil rights, banking, and any number of messes.

"There are two things that have undermined him: He doesn't have great political judgment and he manages those issues himself. He doesn't compliment his own skills with people who do [have them]," says one longtime Washington attorney who has worked with Holder.

Filling out an Attorney General's staff with political players is tricky since the Justice Department is supposed to be apolitical. Surrounding the Labor Secretary with political operatives wouldn't raise complaints. That's not true at DOJ. When the Attorney General is a political player (Bobby Kennedy, John Ashcroft), it's less necessary. Where they're not--as with Janet Reno--it helps to have senior staff who have the legal chops to reassure DOJ staff and the political sensibilities to deal with the outside world. (Ron Klain worked for Reno and went on to be chief of staff for both Al Gore and Joe Biden played this role.) Holder had few people like that around him in the first term although he's about to get an infusion when Brian Fallon, a veteran of Sen. Chuck Schumer's office, comes aboard in the next few weeks. But some friends worry that Holder's problem won't be alleviated by picking up staff from the New York Democrat. He isn't in need of a verbal martial arts master, they argue, but a more acute radar for sensing incoming crises and managing them the DOJ way. They note that Holder was caught off guard by the blow up over the Rosen subpoena and they think his handling of it since--defending it, saying he had regrets about it, and then saying today Rosen wouldn't be prosecuted although Rosen's not been given any official all-clear notice has made a bad decision worse. "Say it is wrong or own it," says the Washington attorney.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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