The Senate confirmation hearings prove bruising chiefly for Al Gonzales.
Wait! Who is that knocking on the courthouse doors? Hello, legal clarity. I think I recognize you from the late '80s.
There's a moment midmorning when Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., asks Holder if he'll do everything he can to defeat Obama on the basketball court. Holder replies that "he's 10 years younger than me. He plays a lot more frequently than I do. Having said that, I've got a New York City game ... but I think I could hang with him." Then he adds that he still doesn't think it would be wise to beat the president. One waits in vain for the increasingly rage-filled Specter to bellow that this is yet more evidence of a lack of prosecutorial independence.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., goes after the Specter claim that Holder is inclined toward presidential lap-doggery, a la Gonzales, by asking Holder a line of questions about how beholden he is to Obama: "Have you ever been President-elect Obama's personal lawyer, like William French Smith had been for years for Ronald Reagan?" (Answer: No.) "Have you ever been a staffer for Barack Obama, like Ed Meese had been for Reagan?" (Answer: No.) "Have you ever served as official counsel to Barack Obama, like Alberto Gonzales had for George Bush?" (Answer: No.) "And has Barack Obama ever dispatched you to the hospital room of a sick government official to get him to authorize an illegal wiretap program?" (Answer: No.) "And I take it you're not a close relation to the new president, like Bobby Kennedy was to Jack Kennedy?" (Answer: "No, we're not related by blood, though people do say we look alike.")
The sticky wicket here was meant to be Holder's scandalous role in the scandalous pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. In fact, going into the hearings, it sounded as though 50 percent of the evenly split committee was deeply concerned about Holder's careless legal advice. Turns out, nobody cares much but Specter, though he cares enough to support the whole "knuckle-biter" meme. It doesn't help that Holder cops to most of it. In his opening statement, he admits, "My decisions were not always perfect. I made mistakes. … [W]ith the benefit of hindsight, I can see my errors clearly, and I can tell you how I learned from them." He says the Rich episode "was and remains the most intense and searing experience I've ever had. I've learned from that experience. I think, as perverse as this sounds, I will be a better attorney general."
Wait. Who's that knocking on the courthouse doors? Hello, the ability to admit to errors. I think I recognize you from the late '90s.
Here's what Alberto Gonzales said when he was asked in November 2006 whether he regrets any decisions he'd made:
Oh, I think that you and I would—I'd have to spend some time thinking about that. Obviously I'm not going to say that I am perfect and that I've been perfect in doing my job. Obviously I've made some recommendations to my client. Some of those recommendations have not been supported in the courts. In hindsight, you sometimes wonder, well, perhaps, perhaps the recommendation should have been something different.
Holder's day is not perfect. He's wobbly on FISA, wobblier on the Patriot Act, and if he were any wobblier on the possibility of personal accountability for criminal wrongdoing in the Bush administration ("We don't want to criminalize policy differences that may exist between the outgoing administration and the Obama administration"), he'd be an egg. But he is capable of answering legal questions with simple declarative sentences, and he has the refreshing ability to admit mistakes. His extraordinary qualifications and the rave reviews of his supporters notwithstanding, after years of near- unchecked lunacy at the Justice Department, that's almost enough.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.