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The Chronicle Sits Down for Candid Dialogue with Former Attorney General, Eric Holder
1/20/2016 8:16:59 AM
Last Updated:
1/20/2016 11:39:01 AM

Thetyka O. Robinson conducts an interview with former Attorney General Eric Holder prior to "The First In The South Dinner" January 16, 2016 at the Charleston Marriott hotel.
By Thetyka O. Robinson

As I waited patiently for Mr. Holder, I must say, I was a bit nervous in that closed off room at the Charleston Marriott Hotel… Then, the curtain spreads and he greets me with a warm, kind smile.  Cracking jokes about extending the campaign season so we can have more interviews.  Good ice breaker, Mr. Holder.  Good icebreaker.  His humor, transparency and ability to be present in spite of the busy energy outside of the room, set the tone for a great interview about his perspective on the current and future state of our country, and why he is supporting Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States.

TR:  What would you say is the best route to develop policies and procedures for that which will alleviate the tension between the black community and the law? - Angela Douglas

We started a tool towards the end of my term as attorney general, where we brought together different parts of the community, as well as people in law enforcement to physically get into the same room.  We discussed in a very open way, the understanding that people may say things that may be hurtful to the other party, but they needed to be said.  I think it is very important to open up the channels of communication because so much of it is based on misunderstanding.  I don’t think people in the community understand how hard it is to be a cop.  It’s a fear inducing job.   I also think that some people in law enforcement do not have the necessary sensitivity of how things may be said on the surface, may seem neutral, but could be interpreted in a negative way.  I also think we have some hard truths that we have to face.  Some people in law enforcement have not always treated people of color in respectful ways.  Unless we are willing to accept that, it’s hard to see how progress can be made.  I think dialogue is the first thing, use of cameras and being accountable.

TR: What concerns do you have for the American people as we prepare for a new President?

EH: I am concerned first and for most about the role back in progress that President Obama has made.  I think he is an extremely consequential President, and it is one of the reasons why I am out here to support Secretary Clinton.  I think she is not only the best qualified person, but the best person to protect the work of President Obama, and build upon it.  The great Presidents do that.  Harry Truman after Franklin Roosevelt.  People may have thought about Roosevelt's New Deal after WWII, and said what can the next person do?  And yet, Harry Truman made significant progress outside of what Franklin Roosevelt did.  As great as I think President Obama is, I think Hillary Clinton will have that same capacity to expand and to protect Obamacare, strengthen Medicaid, Medicare and help families deal with the problem of income and inequality.  I think she has the experience and the passion to do the job that I think is necessary.  That is the thing that worries me the most.  To think we’ve spent eight years taking this country out of the worst financial crisis, since the Great Depression and a host of other issues.  I’d hate to see that get rolled back.
TR: Did you leave the Attorney General’s office better than you found it? - Robert Ellington

EH: Without question.  I inherited a justice department that had been politicized, where the moral was extremely low.  The sense of mission had been lost.  Especially in our civil rights division.  I grew up in the Department of Justice.  My first 12 years as a lawyer was spent in the criminal division and the justice system.  There were things that had happened in the prior administration that I had never seen happen before.  I served under republicans and democrats.  We had to build upon a justice system and I think we did that.  We put a focus on law enforcement and a civil rights division. All places that had gotten underfunded and had had a lot of public interference that prevented people from doing their job.  So, yes, I think when I left in April 2015, that department was better than the one I inherited in February 2009.

TR:  In what ways was your experience as Attorney General what you expected and in what ways was it a complete surprise?  - Angela Webb

EH: It was interesting.  I had public positions before; I had been a judge and a deputy attorney general.  One of the things that really struck me was that when you are the Attorney General of the United States, people listen to you.  I’m a pretty reverent person, and there were things that I would say, kind of off the cuff like in court, not too seriously, and they would report in the papers, ‘Attorney General says…’ and I would say, hey, I was kind of kidding around here. So I had to learn that words matter in ways I had not understood before.  And just the magnitude of the job.  I had left and come back to the justice department which was much more about the issues than when I left.  I had to handle my responsibilities differently and I spent a lot more of my time overseas than I did as Deputy Attorney General.   There was a full range of things that came my way, that I wasn’t expecting to come with my role, but it did.  The Justice Department is where policy meets the law.  It is more often than not, very interesting.

TR: Do you feel now that now you are no longer in that role, you have the freedom to be yourself and voice your opinion without being concerned that everything you say?  Do you feel you can now be your authentic self?

EH: There are certain limits that are placed on you, and you voluntarily accept that, because you are part of a team.  Now I am more of a solo player, so I now have the opportunity to, as you stated, to really express what my feelings are.  I don’t feel as constrained as I did.  And that is why I would never, as Attorney General have been involved in a political campaign, but as an individual I have the ability to be associated with, what I hope is going to be, a winning campaign for the first female President of the United States.  I think she is perfect for the job and I am proud to be a part of her team.

TR: What other changes are in place regarding the federal sentencing guidelines for drug convictions for those serving excessive jail times for drug conspiracy?  - Toni Gilliard

EH: I launched the Smart on Crime Initiative back in August 2013 and told federal prosecutors that you should only bring cases that should not be in the federal system.  You should only be charged for the crime that was committed and use the statutes that had been created for the defendant, so we didn’t end up with sentences where people were going to jail for 10, 15, 20 years, some even for life.  What we have seen is the amount of time being sought by prosecutors has gone down and the number of people in the federal system in prison has gone down.  At the same time, crime has not gone up and we have saved money.  With the increasing amount of money we have saved over the years, the prison population goes down, but there is still more work to do.  I used the executive authority that I had to order certain things, but congress has to now put into law the changes that President Obama and Hillary Clinton think should occur, so that our criminal justice system’s legislatives reflect that of which we try to do through executive action.  It’s something that Hillary has said she will focus on with mass incarceration and I think she is uniquely qualified to do that.

TR: You mentioned in the beginning about transparency and how important it is to bridge that gap.  How do you think we can bridge that gap to remove that fear?  Let’s be real.  Social media reports everything.  It often frames and confirms our fears.  There are some that feel, as you said just now, that things have gotten better over time, but lot of people still do not see that.  What do you think we can do, as the American people, the justice system, our current Attorney General, to shine more light on the positive, versus the negative?  How can we begin to shift in a more positive platform?

EH: Let me be clear as to make sure I was not misunderstood.  Although I think positive change has occurred, we are not in a place where we need to be with relationships with law enforcement and the communities of color.  It is not where I think it should be.  There is a lot of mistrust and misconduct that has to be dealt with.  As I said, we are in a better place than we were, but we are ultimately a long way from where we need to be.  There needs to be better training on dealing with the whole issue of implicit bias.  If you see someone on the street wearing a sweatshirt with a hood, you make that person out to be a criminal.  That could be my son.  He is a lot of things, but he is not a criminal.  He is a lot of things… (thinks to himself with a smile), but he’s not a criminal.  He wears hoodies.  He’s 6’4”.  The whole issue with implicit bias affects black police officers, as well as white police officers; it affects all of us.  Things we associate as negative, criminal traits, with certain people because of how they look.  There are a whole range of things we have to work on before we can get to where we all want to be.  However, let me be clear.  We are not there yet.   We are definitely not there yet.

TR: What three pieces of advice would you give your successor?

I’d first say, speak your mind.  Be yourself and speak your mind.  I think there are truths that public officials too often are unwilling to share, to save face.  That’s one of the reasons why I like Hillary Clinton.  She calls it like it is.  There is an aestheticism about that.  Number two, I’d say, don’t be afraid to confront the bureaucracy.  The Justice Department is a big place; 115,000 people.  A lot of people have been there for extended periods of time.  As I said, I was with the justice department for twelve years and we use to have political appointees that we called tourist.  Tourists come and go, but we were going to be there forever.  So, don’t be afraid to confront the bureaucracy.  Shake it up.  Understand that the pace moves slow due to the bureaucracy.  The pace of change has to be faster, and isn’t as fast as we necessarily want to make it.  So, shake it up!  Push the bureaucracy.  And third, know what your vision is.  What is it that you want to do with the limited time you have as an attorney general and figure out concrete ways you are going to implement that vision.

EH:  Those are really good questions.

TR:  Well, I have really good, smart friends.

EH:  So, these are the people who are following you?

TR:  Yes, I reached out to them on Facebook and Instagram.

Hmm…  That Instagram is interesting (I pause to tell Mr. Holder how Instagram works).

TR: What can you tell the American people who have only known you as the Attorney General based on the media’s perspective? Tell us something interesting about you to help us say, “He seems like someone I would want to hang with.”?

  Well, don’t you already feel that way?

TR:  (laughing) I mean I feel that way, but you know…

EH:  Well say that! No, just kidding. I grew up in East Alvarez in Queens, New York, in a lower class neighborhood.  And, you know… (pausing to think).  I’ve had a number of great jobs and opportunities that people have shared with me, but I still think of myself as that kid from 2600 1st Street.  You know?  I was trying to figure out what it was like to be a black man in the world.  Trying to figure out girls.  I have two daughters and I’m still trying to figure them out.  But, I’m just like everyone else.  Seriously, you tend to lose touch and I don’t think you can be as effective as you could otherwise be, sort of like Hillary.  She has not lost the common touch.  She has been the First Lady, Secretary of State, Senator in New York, First Lady in Arkansas.  And if you really know her, and really talk to her, she is just as warm and engaging… a funny person.  I sat with her in the Situation Room for many years as Secretary of State and we dealt with some heavy duty stuff going on in that room.  I’m sitting next to the Secretary of State and she’s writing me notes, cracking jokes like, “Can you believe he said that?”  So that’s who she is and that is a part of her.  I don’t think people necessarily see that, because of the way people look at her, almost the same way you asked the question about me.   You want to be taken seriously.  Your words matter.  Humor is not always a part of the job, and yet I’d like to think I’m a funny guy.  My wife may say I’m no day at the beach.  I’ve got things about me, like anyone else.  I’m a sports fanatic.  I watch lots of television and like I said, I’m still trying to figure out girls.  Still trying to raise two.

TR: You’re obviously a very strong supporter of Hillary Clinton or you wouldn’t be on the campaign trail with her.  Do you truly believe that after having an African American President, America is truly ready for a female president?

EH:  Absolutely!  Absolutely.

TR: What do you think makes them ready for it?

EH:  I think people underestimate the people of this country to do the unexpected.  If you had said twenty years ago, “Eric do you think in your life time a black man will be President of the United States?”  I would have said, yea right, that ain’t going to happen.  And I may have said the same thing about a woman president.  Times change.  People change.  Look how quickly same sex marriage became something that the majority of the American people supported?  And when you have a woman who is as qualified as Hillary Clinton, who has as much experience as she does, who has the vision that she has shared… and the passion she has shown, it’s not a leap for me.  I think the American people will say, she is not the best woman for the job, but the best person for the job.  With that being the case, I think the American people will do the right thing.  I also believe the American people like “firsts” and the ability to pull the lever in the ballot box for the first woman American president is something people would like to do and tell their children about.  The bottom line is whatever the history, whatever the novelty, this is a woman, who is personally qualified to be the President of the United States.


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