Eric Holder Exit Interview: Why He’ll Always Be an African American Icon

The outgoing attorney general talks to The Daily Beast about his ‘signature achievement,’ his vicious opponents, and why he isn’t done yet: ‘I don’t just want to give speeches.’

09.26.14 1:05 AM ET

In an exit interview today, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder looked back at his tenure as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer and saw a lot of to be proud of. And if the reaction from community leaders around the country is any indicator, others are proud as well.

“Holder is up there with the greats—including Bobby Kennedy,” said Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. “I don’t know anyone who has been more diligent and thoughtful on matters of civil rights.”

The attorney general announced that he would step down from his post as soon as his successor is confirmed. I spoke with Holder about his legacy, what’s next for him, and how he dealt with often-intense criticism from the House GOP.

Holder called his work on criminal-justice reform his “signature achievement,” telling me, “After years of over-reliance on incarceration as a criminal-justice strategy, we finally started to turn this aircraft carrier around.” The attorney general pointed to a decline in the federal prison population this year by more than 4,800 inmates—projected to reach 10,000 inmates by 2016, or the equivalent of five newly empty federal prisons—as evidence of reform, following changes last year that reduced prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders.

Holder also counted progress on LGBT equality and work defending voting rights among his major accomplishments, along with proving that the United States could prosecute terrorism cases in federal civilian courts. He said that after a judge sentenced Abu Ghayth—a high-ranking al Qaeda operative and Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law—to life in prison last week, “my belief and continuing faith in the Article Three court was vindicated.” Looking back wistfully at the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was transferred from civilian court to a military commission after political uproar, Holder said, “I know—I just know—we could have tried KSM in an Article Three court.”

While he said he’s “not quite done thinking” about what he’ll do next, Holder indicated that among his post-administration roles will be continued work on criminal-justice reform. “I’d like to continue being involved with issues that animated my time as attorney general—criminal-justice reform and civil rights especially,” Holder told me. “I don’t just want to give speeches; I’d like to involve myself in this work in a systematic way.”

Holder is sensitive to the concern among some black Americans that civil-rights issues will take a backseat after he departs (“Black Twitter” erupted with trepidation following his announcement, with some users starting a petition on the White House website asking the attorney general to stay.) But Holder says the concerns are misplaced, noting that the reforms he implemented were the president’s handiwork as well. “Barack Obama is still the president of the United States,” Holder told me. “He and I share a worldview, and he is just as committed to these issues as I am… I don’t think you’ll see any letup” on civil-rights issues “and he will pick a new attorney general that shares his values, and my values as well.”

That next attorney general will also face a similarly arduous trek, if the list of unfinished business that Holder ticked off is any indicator. The attorney general pointed to a federal death-penalty review, financial-fraud investigations, and continuing work to build bridges between law enforcement and communities of color as some of the most important items still pending on his plate. His successor will also have to deal with sustained criticism from Republicans in the House, who have perhaps been Holder’s greatest foe.

In 2012 the House GOP held Holder in contempt of Congress following hearings on Operation Fast and Furious, the first time an attorney general has been held in contempt. Many observers found the action racially motivated, and Democrats walked off the House floor in protest, chanting in unison, “Shame on you.” But Holder, for his part, said he holds no grudges. “It’s the same with the president,” he told me. “We both understand that a lot of the criticism is just politics, just noise.”

That din never grew loud enough to force Holder out. When he wraps up his tenure, Holder will be the fourth-longest-serving attorney general in the nation’s history, with many of his signature accomplishments occurring after the House’s 2012 vote. Holder said that it was less a desire for politics, and more echoes from history, that kept him coming back for more.

“I remember being in Texas at the LBJ Library for a speech on voting rights,” Holder said. “And I looked up and saw a picture of my sister-in-law,” the late Vivian Malone Jones, one of two black students to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963, after Gov. George Wallace attempted to block their entry into the school. “When you consider what she had to deal with, and what our ancestors had to deal with in the 18th and 19th centuries… some of the opposition against us is difficult, but if you keep a historical perspective, all of this stuff is manageable.”

“That’s what I learned from those folks. You keep your eyes on the prize, you try to do what’s right, and eventually, you’ll reach your goal.”