Attorney General Eric Holder, shown speaking at the 2012 National Law Enforcement Training on Child Exploitation earlier this month, tells NPR he's achieved his highest goal: leading a Justice Department that shaped him as a lawyer and as a person.
Attorney General Eric Holder — the first African-American to hold the nation's top law enforcement job — is in the homestretch of his first, and probably last, full term in the post.
And after more than three years on the job, Holder is in an unusually reflective mood. He's thinking about the country's ongoing struggle over civil rights and what he wants to accomplish in his last months of government service.
Looking back at the arc of his career — which includes nearly 30 years of government service — Holder says he's achieved his highest goal: leading a Justice Department that shaped him as a lawyer and as a person.
"It's also the last time that I'm going to be employed by the United States Department of Justice," Holder told NPR in a rare and revealing interview. "I've been a part of the department since 1976 in some form or fashion. And so it's been for me, in recent months, kind of a contemplative thing."
For a guy with a lot on his mind, the attorney general is still moving awfully fast. This week, NPR joined him on a trip to Little Rock, Ark., for a speech and a visit to the troops.
Holder walks off stage after a speech April 17 in Atlanta.
Holder walks off stage after a speech April 17 in Atlanta. David Goldman/AP
A Trip Into The Past
In Little Rock, Holder leaped out of a black Chevy Suburban as fast as his long legs would carry him. As usual, his staff trailed far behind.
With her high heels clicking on the concrete floor, press secretary Tracy Schmaler noted: "This is also part of the glamour — running to catch up."
She did catch up, at the entryway to the Clinton Presidential Library, where Stephanie Streett was waiting to give Holder a tour.
Streett, the executive director of the Clinton Foundation, was a familiar face. She was in the White House when Holder served as a top Justice Department deputy during President Clinton's second term.
Holder's visit to the presidential library in Little Rock — his first — put him face to face with the past, including pictures of the Clintons on Inauguration Day.
"This seems like yesterday, doesn't it? I mean, I remember this like it was yesterday," Holder said.
The attorney general lingered, wordless, over footage of Bill Clinton's campaign speeches. He had more to say in front of an exhibit about the Little Rock Nine — black schoolchildren who tried to integrate Central High School in 1957, only to be met by violent mobs and soldiers blocking the door.
The federal government intervened, a key civil rights moment for Holder. "These are the folks who make Barack Obama possible, Eric Holder possible — them and people like them," he said.
Having 'The Conversation'
But every generation has its own civil rights struggles. Holder knows that all too well.
He said the killing in Florida this year of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin prompted him to sit down and talk with his own teenage son, an experience he shared for the first time publicly.
Before the Martin incident, and the outcry that followed, Holder said, he didn't think he'd have "the conversation" with his son. But he changed his mind.
"It brought back to me experiences that I had as a young man: getting stopped by the police on the Jersey Turnpike, getting stopped running to a movie in Georgetown by the police simply because I was running to get to a movie," he said. "I was mad, I was angry, I was humiliated. But I didn't do anything to put my safety at risk. And that's what I tried to convey to my boy."
Follow police instructions, however wrong you think they might be, Holder told his son, and don't let anger guide your actions.
"It's a sad thing that my father had to have that conversation with me, that I thought I had to have that conversation with my son," he said. "We are a nation that's made great progress, great progress — the fact that I'm the attorney general of the United States is an indication of that. But we still have some work to do."
Holder surveys the room before speaking at Northwestern University's law school March 5 in Chicago.
Holder surveys the room before speaking at Northwestern University's law school March 5 in Chicago. Brian Kersey/AP
Behind The Scenes
It was a busy day in Little Rock. This time, Holder was headed to meet with about 70 people waiting for him in the U.S. Attorney's office, where an official reminded the audience about the pomp and circumstance. But Holder didn't stand on ceremony here.
"This is about the 60th U.S. Attorney's office that I've had a chance to visit," he told the crowd. "I think we're at 58, 59, maybe 60 — something like that. And for me, it's a great opportunity to interact with the men and women of the Justice Department."
Holder wasn't just speaking for himself; he's also an envoy of his president, Barack Obama, who happens to be his friend. And Holder let the lawyers in the crowd in on a bit of that dynamic.
"I serve a president who is, among other things, a great lawyer," Holder began, "and he spends a great deal of time, great deal of interest, focused on the Justice Department, which is a good thing. Most of the time." The crowd laughed.
"It also means that he takes a great interest — former law professor and all that, great lawyer — in particular matters that we are doing. Not inappropriate. I'll send him a memo or something and go to the Oval Office to talk about it," Holder said. "And he'll dig through his stuff on his desk, and he'll bring out the memo that I sent over, and it's got red stuff underlined. ... 'Are you sure you're reading that case in the right way? What about the dissent?' And you think, 'Oh, my gosh.' "
Ups And Downs
Another piece of behind-the-scenes information: Holder is frequently sighted at Apple stores in Washington, D.C. — even though his Justice Department is suing Apple over alleged antitrust violations in the pricing of e-books.
"Well, I hope this will not have any effect on my personal relationship with Apple products," Holder told NPR. "I am a proud holder of an iPhone, an iPad, an iPod, a Mac."
And as of last weekend, on one of his regular visits to an Apple store, Holder said, "They still seemed to be happy to see me there."
Other moments have been not so happy. One of the most prominent: Holder's decision to try the men who plotted the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, which got overruled by the White House after a political firestorm. Those men will finally face arraignment May 5 at the military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"I'm still convinced that the initial decision that I made was the right one, that we could have held those trials safely" in his hometown of New York, Holder said.
These days, Holder's thinking more about the future. His oldest daughter is leaving home this fall for college in New Orleans. And he said his days in the government are numbered too, as he heads to the finish line.
"But I think there's still, you know, there's more work to do," he hastened to add. "Although I've become contemplative ... I'm not going to glide through the tape. I want to run through it."
Still on the agenda: protecting voting rights; holding BP accountable; and defending national security.