White House

Eric Holder and the Lonely President

The attorney general’s departure removes one of Obama’s few close friends in the administration.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Attorney General Eric Holder (R) in the Oval Office of the White House August 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama was to receive an update on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has called in the National Guard to 'help restore peace and order and to protect the citizens of Ferguson,' according to a statement from the governor's office.
National Journal
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George E. Condon Jr.
Sept. 25, 2014, 12:58 p.m.

Barack Obama star­ted wor­ry­ing about the loneli­ness of the pres­id­ency even be­fore he was elec­ted in 2008. In the years since, it has been a re­cur­ring theme as he battled the isol­a­tion of the of­fice and struggled to lib­er­ate “the bear” from his cage. Now, with the de­par­ture of one of the few per­son­al friends he named to his Cab­in­et, the pres­id­ent may find him­self even fur­ther isol­ated as he com­pletes his sixth year in of­fice.

Eric Hold­er, who is step­ping down as at­tor­ney gen­er­al, has been more than just an ap­pointee. There was nev­er any ques­tion that Obama was the boss. But Hold­er al­ways was able to speak up to the pres­id­ent; he was someone the boss was com­fort­able hav­ing around him. In part, that kin­ship came from the ob­vi­ous link between the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent and the first black at­tor­ney gen­er­al. In part, the com­fort came from the close friend­ship of their wives. And, in part, it came from a shared agenda.

At the of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment of his resig­na­tion, Hold­er made an emo­tion­al ref­er­ence to his per­son­al re­la­tion­ship with Obama while the pres­id­ent stood by his side. “We have been great col­leagues,” Hold­er said. “But the bonds between us are much deep­er than that. In good times and in bad, and in things per­son­al and in things pro­fes­sion­al, you have been there for me. I am proud to call you a friend.”

Hold­er’s ten­ure at the Justice De­part­ment was not al­ways smooth. He stumbled right out of the gate when he marked Black His­tory Month in 2009 with a speech that in­furi­ated White House staffers. “Though this na­tion has proudly thought of it­self as an eth­nic melt­ing pot, in things ra­cial we have al­ways been and con­tin­ue to be, in too many ways, es­sen­tially a na­tion of cow­ards,” Hold­er said at the time. To the White House, this sug­ges­ted that Hold­er was tone-deaf and em­bar­rass­ing the pres­id­ent. But to Obama, the sen­ti­ments were not out of line—even though the al­ways-care­ful pres­id­ent would nev­er have put them in those words.

Later, Hold­er would be more out­spoken than the pres­id­ent on the death of Trayvon Mar­tin, more force­ful on vot­ing rights, and more vig­or­ous on push­ing for the next items on the civil-rights agenda. And throughout, Hold­er would have Obama’s ear as the fam­il­ies watched Su­per Bowls to­geth­er and had pizza parties and shared an af­fin­ity for va­ca­tion­ing in Martha’s Vine­yard. Obama has few close friends in Wash­ing­ton—and Hold­er cer­tainly would not be con­sidered any­where near as close as some of Obama’s Chica­go-based friends. But they shared a ra­cial bond after grow­ing up middle-class, both sons of im­mig­rant fath­ers. “We are both ba­sic­ally a little bit out­side the typ­ic­al black ex­per­i­ence,” Hold­er told Politico. “But we have wives who re­mind us what that was like…. That’s why we feel so com­fort­able around each oth­er.”

In Obama’s Cab­in­et, that made Hold­er al­most unique. Only Arne Duncan, a bas­ket­ball-play­ing buddy from Chica­go, could rival Hold­er for close­ness to the pres­id­ent. In that re­gard, Obama’s Cab­in­et and top White House staff were un­usu­al. Most pres­id­ents like to sur­round them­selves with people they have known long enough to trust. In the Obama White House, that in­cluded top aides Valer­ie Jar­rett, Pete Rouse, Dav­id Axel­rod, and Robert Gibbs. But now, with Hold­er’s im­pend­ing de­par­ture, that in­side group has shrunk to only Duncan and Jar­rett.

When Hold­er is gone, only two mem­bers of Obama’s ori­gin­al Cab­in­et will re­main—Duncan at Edu­ca­tion and Tom Vil­sack at Ag­ri­cul­ture. This is about nor­mal for two-term pres­id­ents since World War II. At this point in their sixth year, Bill Clin­ton had four, Dwight Eis­en­hower had three, and Ron­ald Re­agan and George W. Bush each had two.

What is un­usu­al in the long stretch of Amer­ic­an his­tory is the paucity of pres­id­en­tial friends in a cab­in­et, and that is par­tic­u­larly true when it comes to the post of at­tor­ney gen­er­al. For the very first AG, George Wash­ing­ton turned to the man who had been his aide de camp in the Re­volu­tion­ary War, Ed­mund Ran­dolph. For his second AG, he picked a man who had been at Val­ley Forge with him, Wil­li­am Brad­ford. Those se­lec­tions turned out well for Wash­ing­ton. Al­most two cen­tur­ies later, John F. Kennedy shame­lessly picked his own broth­er for the job and saw Robert F. Kennedy be­come one of the most ef­fect­ive AGs ever.

Some oth­er pres­id­en­tial picks have had less mo­ment­ous out­comes. War­ren Hard­ing got in­to trouble with his fel­low Ohioan Harry Daugh­erty, as did Richard Nix­on when he se­lec­ted law part­ner John Mitchell. Oth­ers friends served with vary­ing levels of dis­tinc­tion: Dwight Eis­en­hower picked Her­bert Brownell, the Re­pub­lic­an chair­man who pushed him to run for pres­id­ent. Jimmy Carter brought Griffin Bell from Geor­gia to be at­tor­ney gen­er­al. Re­agan picked his per­son­al law­yer, Wil­li­am French Smith, and then moved his long­time aide, Ed­win Meese, in­to the job. George W. Bush tapped Al­berto Gonzales, who had been his gubernat­ori­al gen­er­al coun­sel.

The one con­stant, from Wash­ing­ton to Obama and Ran­dolph to Hold­er, is that pres­id­ents wanted some­body they knew and trus­ted in the post. It is why Obama could sup­port Hold­er through Fast and Furi­ous, the pro­sec­u­tion of Khal­id Sheikh Mo­hammed, the non-pro­sec­u­tion of the bankers who gave us the 2008 crash, the crack­down on journ­al­ists, and the his­tor­ic vote by the House to hold the at­tor­ney gen­er­al in con­tempt.

Hav­ing friends like Hold­er around can help com­bat something Obama wor­ried about in 2008. Less than two weeks after he was elec­ted, he told Steve Kroft on CBS’s 60 Minutes that past pres­id­ents had warned him about the loneli­ness and isol­a­tion that comes with the job. “All of them re­cog­nize there’s a cer­tain loneli­ness to the job,” said Obama, who ad­ded, “Even now, you know … you can already feel that fact.” And that has only grown worse in the suc­ceed­ing six years. Van­ity Fair dubbed Obama “The Lonely Guy,” re­port­ing that Jar­rett had warned him after his elec­tion, “You’ll nev­er make any new friends.”

So the loss of an old friend in Hold­er is likely to sting even more. The pres­id­ent has joked about the quote of­ten at­trib­uted—in­ac­cur­ately—to Pres­id­ent Tru­man that if you want a friend in Wash­ing­ton, “get a dog.” So maybe it is good, with Hold­er flee­ing, that Obama already has Bo and Sunny in place. He just may need their com­fort when Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion hear­ings be­gin on Hold­er’s re­place­ment.


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