For Holder, a Legacy of Achievement in a Time of Doubt

US Attorney General Eric Holder speaks on criminal justice and sentencing reform at the National Press Club on February 17, 2
US Attorney General Eric Holder speaks on criminal justice and sentencing reform at the National Press Club on February 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

According to his friend and biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., it was only in the waning months of Robert Kennedy's tenure as U.S. Attorney General that he "at last traveled in that speculative area where doubt lived." Tested by the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement, wracked by the pain of his brother's assassination, Kennedy's reigning passions were tempered, as he entered his final year in office, by harsh reality.

In the half-century since, the Office of the Attorney General has changed immeasurably. The challenges of the contemporary role are perhaps second only to the presidency in their magnitude and variation, touching nearly every federal agency and impacting policy across the government. Its modern occupant cannot help but spend the majority of his or her time traversing Kennedy's "speculative area" -- not because of national tragedy or the convulsions of civil rights, but because doubt is an ever-present condition in problems that reach the highest levels of government.

Like Kennedy, the 82nd and current attorney general, Eric Holder, has moved decisively in the face of such doubt. Since 2009, Holder has exercised the powers of his office not merely to preserve the Justice Department as a static institution, as many of his predecessors have done, but to mobilize it as a force for proactive change.

As a result, this week, as he bids a formal farewell to the institution he has served for nearly four decades, he does so not merely as one of America's longest-serving attorneys general, but also -- as the New York Times asserted last summer -- as "one of the most consequential in United States history."

In a time of partisan rancor, Holder has unquestionably cut a divisive figure -- however undeservedly -- while amassing a record that defies categorization. He shares a close friendship with President Obama, yet exercises a brand of independence that has at times driven White House advisors to distraction. He has been hailed by allies such as Congressman John Lewis as a leader for whom the cause of civil rights is "written on his heart," while also winning praise from the likes of Rand Paul.

Over the years, Holder's effectiveness amid controversy -- coupled with the prescient leadership he has shown on issues ranging from civil rights and marriage equality to criminal justice reform -- have made him both a foil and an indispensable alter ego for Obama. Like the President, the attorney general is of course the first African-American to occupy the office he holds. His racial identity is thus inseparable from his public profile. And this profile has been reinforced by his willingness to engage on even the most sensitive issues, where Obama himself might prefer not to tread.

Among the hyperventilating commentators of the right-wing blogosphere, this has led some to caricature Holder as a zealot -- a kind of Malcolm X in a motorcade. Yet in recent months, as tragic shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere have raised major questions of race and justice, Holder's early pronouncements on these issues -- including some that sparked controversy early in his tenure -- have in many ways been vindicated.

Of course, race is far from the only subject on which Holder's words and actions, once doubted, have later proved prophetic. In the wake of the Supreme Court's appalling 2013 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, Holder's contentions about the Act's enduring relevance were borne out with alarming speed when eight states adopted new voting restrictions within months after the ruling came down.

Nor has the attorney general been content merely to safeguard the gains of the past. In 2011, Holder declared that his department would no longer defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. Although the move was greeted with plaudits from the equal rights community, it was met with harsh criticism by others, who saw it as "an unprecedented and ill-advised departure..."

When, in 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated the DOMA provision at issue, Holder's courageous decision took on the sheen of a watershed moment. Last summer, in an interview with Vox, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin opined that, in evaluating Holder's legacy, "throwing the weight of the Justice Department behind the cause of gay rights will be seen as enormously important." Privately, the attorney general agreed, calling LGBT equality "the defining civil rights challenge of our time."

Even as he has taken his lumps over the years -- particularly from House Republicans -- Holder has continued to play offense. Early in 2013, he again put the ball in the air, launching a review of the federal criminal justice system. The resulting reforms almost certainly constituted the most consequential shift in American justice policy in a generation, and will surely stand among the attorney general's most durable and lasting achievements.

Through his "Smart on Crime initiative," Holder sharply curtailed the use of mandatory minimum sentences against low-level federal drug defendants and renewed his emphasis on the discretion of individual prosecutors. Some questioned whether Smart on Crime amounted to a kind of unilateral disarmament, depriving prosecutors of the ability to threaten lengthy sentences in order to induce cooperation from defendants.

Holder was unconvinced. And earlier this month, he unveiled new data showing that, once again, his position had been vindicated: Eighteen months into Smart on Crime, there has been a sizeable drop in the percentage of cases where mandatory minimums were charged, while the rate of defendant cooperation remains unchanged.

The attorney general would be the first to acknowledge that his tenure has been nothing if not tumultuous. But history will record successes on every major front. And on his watch, the United States has experienced a decline in the overall crime rate, as well as the first drop in the federal prison population in decades -- an unambiguously historic achievement.

In the final analysis, Holder can best be understood as more than just a "race man," in the words of his friend Charles Ogletree, or even as a surrogate for President Obama. At his core, Eric Holder is a "justice man," who sees himself not merely as a protector and faithful steward, but as a champion of the department, and the cause, he has served for nearly his entire adult life.

Robert Kennedy would be proud.