Eric Holder: Been there, done that

Republicans are screaming for a special counsel; reporters/commentators from CBS to Fox News are aggressively questioning Attorney General Eric Holder's truthfulness in testimony last May to Congress about when he first knew about Operation Fast and Furious. (Holder answered the question posed by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., about when he first knew about Fast and Furious, “I’m not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about [it] for the first time over the last few weeks.”) Justice Department documents seem to indicate that he would have known about it in July 2010.

For Holder, this must seem like déjà vu all over again — here’s how.

Had Al Gore won the White House in 2000, the conventional wisdom was that Holder, Attorney General Janet Reno’s deputy in the Clinton White House, would be Gore’s choice for attorney general. Gore’s ambitions were stymied and thus so were Holder’s. But Holder suffered more than blocked realization of his long-held dream of being attorney general; his reputation was also damaged, seemingly irrevocably, as details emerged about his handling of a pardon for billionaire fugitive from justice Marc Rich.

On his way out of the White House in January 2001, President Bill Clinton handed out some poisonous pardons, the most infamous among them to Rich, then living in Switzerland to avoid facing charges of tax evasion, racketeering and trading with the enemy (arms to Iran). Holder was accused of everything from sloppiness to inattention to detail to deliberately looking the other way and letting the pardon go through. He denied any such thing, but his most determined detractors insisted that it was part of his strategy — a tangled series of associations and alleged motivations — for ensuring that Gore selected him as attorney general. I wrote about that in my book, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, on Clinton’s post-presidency, and in a later post.

When I interviewed Holder in late 2006, he was a partner at Covington & Burling and told me he doubted he’d go back into public service. He still seemed hurt, but not nearly as shell-shocked as in 2001 after he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating the Rich pardon. He told a reporter for The Washington Post that after that experience he wanted to “crawl into bed and pull the covers up over my head ... I’m done. Public life’s over for me. I had a moment in time. That moment has passed."

The growing scandal of Operation Fast and Furious threatens to put Holder, given a second chance that he himself seems not to have expected, back on the hot seat. His many friends and admirers must wonder why it seems that he did not learn enough from his ham-handed handling of the Rich pardon, and its painful — deserved or not — aftermath. 

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