Holder’s Complex Legacy Slightly Out of Balance

Updated Sep 30, 2014

If you watched the latest Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts, then you know that when assessing anyone, you’re forced to take the good and the bad.

For example, Teddy Roosevelt, the monopoly buster, could be seen as a man of the people. Just not the Filipinos. TR wasn’t all that bad — for an elite imperialist. Lover of animals? Almost as much as he took joy in hunting and killing them. But what do you expect from a man who never met a war he didn’t like? Nobody’s perfect, right?

Or do we understand that our contradictions are part of what makes us all complex beings and that compromise, especially in politics, complicates any appraisal of a life. Maybe all we can do as we look over someone’s past is hope to find a sense of balance. I thought of that as I considered Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation last week.

As the first African-American to hold the office, Holder had a stellar record as a man for civil rights, from voting rights, to gay marriage, to speaking out on race relations and fighting hate crimes.

But with Holder, civil rights too often took a back seat to civil liberties. The NSA couldn’t have done what they did without Holder’s backing. Government surveillance all flourished under Holder.

And even when it came to the First Amendment, the basic principle that protects the academic freedom those in higher ed cherish, Holder’s record is not good. Not when it came to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning? Whistleblowers and leakers are on the run.

Meanwhile, James Risen of The New York Times is facing jail for his story on a bungled CIA operation in Iran, and, some believe, for being the first to break the story of the NSA’s surveillance of Americans.

Lowell Bergman, the famed investigative reporter on whom the movie The Insider was based, delivered a bold keynote address before a conference of 1,600 journalists this summer. “We have to talk about the illusion we have gone along with in the past six to seven years,” Bergman said. That in some way the Bush/Gonzales years were bad years for journalism … when in fact Barack Obama and Eric Holder are not our friends.” It was the first vigorous ovation Bergman received that day.

The administration isn’t a friend of journalists and the public’s right to know, and neither is the Supreme Court, according to Bergman, who pointed out how different things were today. Bergman said that 50 years ago in New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court, with a Republican leading the way in a 9-0 decision, gave real backing to reporters.

“It meant you can report on a public figure without fear of being dragged into court and have to prove factually to the standards of the court that what you report is in fact true,” said Bergman.

He also pointed out that Sullivan didn’t involve a story, but an advertisement in The New York Times taken out by a civil rights organization. “And we (journalists) profited from that,” he said. “And I think it’s important to remember, we don’t have the civil rights movement (anymore).”

Surely, it’s not the same as when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law 50 years ago. But we’ve had Holder often fighting SCOTUS, and doing what he could for our civil rights. Not so much for our civil liberties.

It leaves Holder with a complicated legacy, with the scales of justice definitely out of balance.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog). Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media and on Twitter @emilamok.