Holder: 'I wanted to be an activist attorney general'

In an interview with Yahoo News the day after he announced plans to retire, Eric Holder reflected on his legacy, how he became a progressive and how he went from idolizing JFK to RFK

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder returns an acknowledgement from President Barack Obama at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner in Washington September 27, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY) (REUTERS)

On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced he was stepping down after five and a half years at the helm of the Justice Department. The following day, Yahoo News interviewed him in Scranton, Pa., the scene of his first trial victory 35 years ago. The interview took place at the William J. Nealon Federal Building, named after the federal judge who took Holder under his wing. While in Scranton, Holder met with Nealon, 93, who still sits on the bench.

How are you feeling?

I woke up, it was kind of a normal day. I hadn't gotten a lot of sleep because I stayed up late talking to my brother about all this stuff. But a couple of steps from my bed I realized, wow, I resigned yesterday from being attorney general of the United States. The world is different today.

What was the significance of coming here to Scranton today?

Well, I wanted to go to all 94 of the [U.S. attorney] districts before I left as attorney general. It was something I set as a goal back in 2009. I just decided I wanted to come here last because this was where I had the most significant experience of my young legal career. I didn't try my first case here — that was Hammond, Ind., where we didn't have the best results — but I won my first case here, and I tried four trials in this district in my early career at the Justice Department.

You've been talking about Bobby Kennedy a lot recently. You were always a Jack Kennedy guy. Why do you now feel drawn to Bobby?

It's an interesting thing. As much as I knew of the Kennedy brothers, I have through the course of my time as attorney general gotten to know Bobby Kennedy much better, in reviewing his speeches, becoming acquainted with his family and in particular his wife, Ethel Kennedy. ... I [visited her then-home Hickory Hill] on a few occasions, went to her bridge dedication [in Washington, D.C.]. I spoke to her yesterday. She's written me a whole bunch of nice notes. I have a greater appreciation for [RFK], what he did at the Justice Department and how he was pushing, always pushing his older brother, I think in the way that Eleanor Roosevelt pushed FDR to be more progressive, to be more daring when it came to social issues. ... [The recent] voting rights suppression effort is something that really awakened in me ... or galvanized in me a desire to push back in really significant ways and in a way that Robert Kennedy did in the '60s.

That's part of your personal evolution as attorney general. You pushed more than when you were younger.

There's no question about that. Some people get more conservative as they get older. I think I've become more sensitive, more aware of the need for positive change, and then I was given a position where I could effectuate it. I was not going to be content to simply be somebody who looked at my inbox and signed off on papers and moved them to my outbox. I wanted to be an activist attorney general in the best sense of the word. There were issues that percolated during my time as attorney general that pushed me to that activist mode. Looking at the criminal justice system and the numbers of people who were in jail for extended periods of time for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes, the question of equality for LGBT [people], the civil rights component of what I think an attorney general can uniquely push was something for me that helped shape what I wanted to do. People grow.

Did the constant criticism from the Republicans in Congress, the contempt citation, the calls for your resignation, in a sense liberate you?

Yeah. When the opposition is so unyielding, and I think has tended to be so wrong, it made the choices more stark. There weren't huge numbers of gray areas. From my perspective it was right or wrong.

Are you fundamentally a more progressive person today in your outlook?

That's an interesting question. I think I am less willing to accept excuses for inequality than perhaps I was when I was younger. If wisdom doesn't necessarily come with age, experience certainly does. I've seen more, I've experienced more, I've traveled more as attorney general, and I see the needs of people that have not been met [and] seen people be treated unfairly. I think that has made me less hesitant to express feelings that I have, or less hesitant to act in ways that when I was U.S. attorney I might not have.

A couple of policy questions. First, what's your legal analysis for why the bombing in Syria is legal? What do you base that on?

I'm not sure I want to get into this because this goes into legal analysis and advice that we at the Justice Department have given to the White House.

Is there a [formal legal opinion]?

I'm not going to talk about the form it took, but it is definitely legal advice that we gave to the White House.

There's a lot of haggling still going on over the so-called torture report, which hasn't been released yet. What do you say to the intelligence community about getting it out?

The American people need to know what was done in their name. My hope is this report would become public as quickly as it possibly can. Given my druthers, I would have hoped it would have been released by now.

There have been a number of court decisions overturning bans against gay marriage. Would you urge the Supreme Court to take up this issue?

I think it's inevitable that the Supreme Court will take up one of these cases.

Do you believe there is an absolute constitutional right to gay marriage?

Yes. Same-sex marriage cannot be constitutionally prohibited.

Last question: Are you ready for Hillary? Would you campaign for her?

I'll be honest with you. I have not started to think that far down. I've got things I still want to get done at the Justice Department, and when I have some free time I'll start thinking about when and if I want to get involved in another political campaign. [On the trail,] I spent a lot of time eating terrible food.

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