Attorney General Eric Holder has gone from dead man walking to man of the hour for team Obama.
As Holder arrived in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday to address the police shooting of an unarmed teenager, it was clear that the attorney general had emerged as arguably President Obama’s most-trusted confidant rather than the source of consternation that once frustrated so many White House officials.
“He gets more crap than anybody,” a former Obama senior administration official told the Washington Examiner. “But Eric is as battle tested as anybody out there, and there should be little doubt about where he stands with the president now.”
But the label that will likely endure as Holder’s legacy — or so he hopes — is as Obama’s point man on sensitive issues of race.
"I am the attorney general of the United States," Holder said in Ferguson Wednesday. "But I am also a black man. I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding.”
Holder goes where Obama can’t, both literally and figuratively. As Obama weighed a potential visit to Ferguson from the confines of his vacation estate in Martha’s Vineyard, it was Holder who assured protesters that the government would get to the bottom of exactly what happened when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The central purpose of Holder’s visit to the St. Louis suburb was as much about symbolism as getting answers, combating charges that Obama was missing in action.
The attorney general met with prosecutors. He chatted with civil rights leaders. And he listened to Ferguson residents air their grievances about late-night clashes with police officers.
“You are the man,” Holder told Capt. Ron Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who is coordinating law enforcement activities in the St. Louis suburb. He even squeezed in some selfies with a few locals.
Still, some in the audience likely wondered why it was Holder, and not Obama, listening to their concerns.
Holder also took the lead on scrapping mandatory minimum prison sentences, expanding gay rights and ensuring the civil rights division of the Justice Department played a far more active role in rooting out racial disparities.
"If anyone can address the concerns of both the people who are outraged and peacefully demonstrating in Ferguson, Mo., and discuss an equitable resolution of the arrests, shootings and killings by the police — which has 50 white officers and three black police officers — it is Eric Holder," said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and longtime friend of the attorney general's.
But taking center stage in Ferguson, an area where so much remains unknown, represents Holder’s riskiest crusade so far. If he botches the administration’s response, the White House could appear more concerned with the politics of the situation than ensuring justice is served.
“It’s incendiary, and it looks like they’re trying to cause a result that has nothing to do with the facts,” warned Joe DiGenova, a Republican who served as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and has known Holder for years.
“I don’t trust the civil rights division,” he added. "I think they are partisan, ideological people — it’s an arm of the Democratic Party.”
Holder didn't exactly downplay the division's goals Wednesday when meeting with young people in Ferguson.
“We have a very active civil rights division,” he said. “As they write about the legacy of the Obama administration, a lot of it is going to be about what the civil rights division has done."
Those who view the events in Ferguson as an obvious case of racial injustice were eager for a more forceful response from the White House. Obama sees Holder as his best weapon to assuage those concerns without looking like he’s getting involved in an ongoing investigation.
Some analysts said the president had little choice but to send his attorney general to Ferguson.
“He is the obvious person to go. It happens that he also brings considerable credibility to the assignment because of his longstanding support for civil rights enforcement,” said William Yeomans, an American University law professor who spent more than 25 years working on civil rights cases for the Justice Department.
“The attorney general's chief political opponents are driven by a partisan frenzy that will be unaffected by anything he does in Ferguson or anywhere else,” Yeomans added. “He needs, however, to take care to keep expectations realistic for the sake of future peace in Ferguson.”
Holder is hardly the first attorney general to play the role of human shield for the president. Former Attorney General Janet Reno took much of the heat for the Clinton administration’s handling of the raid at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas — she ultimately became the second-longest serving attorney general of all time.
John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, eventually went down for Watergate. And Attorney General John Ashcroft, a lightning rod for criticism from civil liberties groups, resigned not long after George W. Bush’s re-election.
But Holder, one of just three remaining members from Obama's original Cabinet, isn’t going anywhere, according to those close to him.
“This is what Eric has always wanted to do,” said the senior administration official. “Why would he leave that?”