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.
What's most alarming among those who know Holder and like him is their despair over how the straight arrow they adore is now seen as hyperpartisan, dissembling, even perjuring. Holder, they note, was the studious son a father who immigrated from Barbados and whose mother was a church secretary and whose brother is a cop. The wiry athlete leapt from his middle-class home in Elmhurst, Queens to the city's elite Stuyvesant High and then Columbia College and Columbia Law School and eschewed big bucks on Wall Street to go straight to the Justice Department. (He once had to listen to a wiretap of a mobster referring to him by a racial epithet.) He only started to make money in 2001 when he joined the ranks of government lawyers at Covington & Burling, where he represented the odd assemblage of clients that goes with being a big-name, white-shoe attorney--the NFL in the Michael Vick case and a group of irate trustees at American University fighting over Ben Ladner, who left the school's presidency after details of his lavish lifestyle emerged. They note that he'd been confirmed overwhelmingly by the Senate before his nomination to become attorney general and even then he received the support from the likes of Republican Sens. Jon Kyl, Orrin Hatch and John McCain and endorsements from Republicans like Fran Townsend, George W. Bush's Homeland Security Advisor and Louis Freeh, the Clinton nemesis and former FBI Director.