When William Barr was nominated by George Bush Sr. to be attorney general in 1991, I got a jolt of post-traumatic stress. The announcement flashed me back to personal victimization by Barr that I had not thought of for 25 years. “Could it be,” I wondered, “that the sociopath from my childhood is really about to become the highest legal official in the land?”
This ominous prospect compelled me to publicly share my experiences of being bullied by Barr. I wrote an account of being intimidated by Barr when he was two years ahead of me in both middle and high school (1963-1967) at Horace Mann in New York, and in college (1969-71) at Columbia University, where his violent behavior escalated.
I submitted these recollections to the Florida Flambeau, a small Tallahassee daily newspaper that mostly serves the Florida State University community. I secretly hoped Barr would never see it and was fairly confident he would not. In the Flambeau piece I outed Barr as a racist and a bully in high school.
He and a buddy of his made a habit of harassing me every time they saw me because I wore pro-civil rights buttons. They would team up and try to scare me, knock me out of the way when they went past me in the hallway and grumble about me being a “pinko.” I made it my business to avoid them.
Barr and his brothers were all known for their extreme right-wing views. One year they even picketed the “Junior Carnival,” an annual charity fundraiser, because the proceeds were going to the NAACP. When I got to college, I learned that Barr had earned a reputation there for teaming up with riot police to attack anti-war protesters and “beat heads” right alongside them.
In the article reporting on my years of dodging Barr’s high school terror tactics, I included some research on what Barr had been up to in the intervening years. It was not a pretty picture: He was burnishing his right-wing credentials in the CIA, and in elite echelons of the legal world advocating for anti-abortion activists and lobbying for corporate welfare. That was 29 years ago.
Fast forward to December 2018 and he's baaaack. Of course, the notion of Barr now serving in a Trump administration had what little hair I have standing on end. So I scanned a clipping of the 1991 column and posted it on Facebook. Many months later, in early 2020, it took off on Twitter when Barr was back in the news for some atrocity that has since been obscured by others. Now my retrospective Barr profile has a resurgence every week or so—whenever Barr outdoes himself and reaches a new low.
The amazing thing about the 1991 column–and the reason it has garnered so much attention and interest–is that long before Barr’s current era of dastardliness, I totally nailed him for what he is today, although he’s taken it to extremes far beyond my wildest imagination: a racist, a bully, and a fascist.
Barr is a lifelong racist. Why in the world would Barr target me for harassment and intimidation when I was a puny little 12-year-old, two years behind him whom he didn’t even know? The answer is very simple: I wore racial equality buttons. One was a very beautiful and meaningful button distributed by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a prominent youth civil rights organization at the time. It was a small black button with a white equal sign in the middle that I thought said it all. I still have it, and here it is:
I wore it with pride, broadcasting my belief in equality and my abhorrence of racism. For that, Barr targeted me.
Barr reached yet another new low last week in insisting that there is “no systemic racism in policing.” As our nation cries out for racial justice, riveted on the pervasive discriminatory practices and culture of law enforcement, Barr can not even acknowledge the problem. Instead, he bared his racist soul, denying what is plain for all to see in one cruel cold-hearted dog whistle to the core of Trump’s base. It is incomprehensibly tragic that the 15-year old who hated me for believing in equality is now in charge of enforcing racial justice. He hasn’t changed a bit.
Barr is a bully. Barr was a lot bigger than I was in middle school, as was his sidekick, who used to threaten and stalk me along with Barr. Apparently, Barr is unrepentant about his violent proclivities in college: He bragged last week to a Politico reporter that he tussled with anti-war protesters in college and claimed that a dozen or so had to go to the hospital (a “boast” disputed by the article’s author). Barr’s reliance on bully tactics has been on display from the moment he took office by Trump’s side, whether flouting congressional authority with brazen contempt or ordering the forceful removal of peaceful protesters from a public space so Trump can stroll through for an idiotic photo op.
Barr is a true fascist. Fascism is not a figment of liberal imagination. It is a real, terrible thing, and it is on the rise around the world—and here at home. It is now common knowledge that Barr got his current job by snowing Trump with Barr’s core belief in the virtually unlimited power of the American president (depending, of course, on what political party the president belongs to). Unfortunately, Barr’s belief flies in the face of fundamental democratic principles and our constitutional form of government.
I have come to be known as something of a “Barr whisperer” over these last 18 months by virtue of my inside view of him in our formative years. Early in his tenure I was asked, and many wondered, “Why would Barr take this job at this point in his life and career?” I think the answer is that Barr saw an opening–a demented, suggestible, Nero-like emperor into whose confidence he could wheedle his way and become supremely powerful. He instantly gained the emperor’s favor and undying devotion by derailing the Mueller investigation findings and refashioning them to the emperor’s liking.
Their symbiotic relationship will keep historians busy for centuries. The one thing I did not know about Barr in 1991 that also defines him is his twisted and profoundly aspiritual religiosity. True to fascist form, on top of everything else, he is a theocrat. He has literally declared war on “secular” society, publicly declaring it to be the root of all evil. Nothing could be more antithetical to the founding principles of our country and a free society.
Barr has emerged as one of the truly evil figures of our day. I have hesitated even to air my childhood grievances with him because they are so trivial and petty compared to the destruction he has wreaked on the vital institutions that sustain our democratic way of life. It started Day One on the job when he squelched the evidence that would bring down a criminal and lawless president. And it peaked last week when he saw fit to sic the might of the American military on a peaceful citizenry whose only offense was to demand an end to racism.
Barr was on the wrong side of history when I met him and he’s on the wrong side of history now.
Jimmy Lohman is a death row defense attorney and musician in Austin. He tweets at @JamesCLohman1.