Eric Holder

A New Direction

United States Attorney General Eric Holder ’76 is addressing the challenges that go hand-in-hand with being the nation’s most powerful law enforcement officer.

By Carrie Johnson

Summer 2009

Sitting at the head of the table in an ornate conference room, with a portrait of Robert F. Kennedy hanging above him, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ’76 says he’s ready to steer the Justice Department in a new direction.

Since taking office in February, he has confronted some of the most challenging problems in government—everything from how to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and disperse hundreds of detained terrorism suspects to policing financial malfeasance on Wall Street. Those weighty tasks, and many others, must be accomplished during a time of shrinking federal budgets, and as morale at the department remains uncertain after political hiring scandals that occurred under Holder’s predecessors.

“Nothing’s intractable,” Holder says. “This is a department that’s literally filled with people like me who work here because they want to, not because they have to. There are not any problems this department can’t solve. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t believe that to my core.”

Holder long has displayed cool amid the chaos that surrounds him, dating to his years at Columbia Law School. He says living a short walk from Harlem’s poverty and dysfunction of the early 1970s prompted him to become a public corruption prosecutor. “You especially couldn’t be a black student at Columbia in Morningside Heights and not be involved in a community that was so close,” Holder recalls.

Leading 110,000 people as the country’s chief law enforcement officer is a crowning step in Holder’s storied career. He served as a local judge in D.C., as that city’s top prosecutor, and as deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton before charting a successful private practice at Covington & Burling.

In a single afternoon, Holder’s new role takes him from the department’s super-secret command center, where he reviews classified intelligence about security threats, to a high-level meeting on combating mortgage fraud. While also working on many civil rights and environmental issues, he remains diligent in protecting the country against terrorism. “The primary responsibility for any attorney general is to keep the American people safe,” he says. “I’ve got to do so in a way that’s consistent with our values and the law.”

All this for a man who, until college, dreamed of being an NBA guard rather than a lawyer guarding the country’s security. Basketball remains a hot topic of conversation between the Stuyvesant High School sharpshooter Holder and his boss, President Obama. But the attorney general resists talking trash about who would have won a hypothetical matchup of their high school teams.

“The ’68-’69 Stuyvesant squad may have been the only team in New York at the time that would’ve had trouble beating a team from Hawaii,” Holder admits. “Stuy was a specialized high school. We had kids who had much higher IQs than scoring averages.”

Carrie Johnson covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post.

Photographed by Tom Wolff