Black America marked another milestone when Eric Holder, Jr. was sworn in as the first African-American attorney general of the United States. Despite rumors that Holder would face a grueling interrogation from the Senate Judiciary Committee, he won their approval by a 17 to 2 margin.
The vote from the full senate body on Monday was almost as unanimous, 75 to 21.
“A new day for this country is potentially at hand,” Holder told the press of the Obama administration. “The distance from a very small house in Queens, New York, to the fifth floor of the Department of Justice is not as far as you might think. That is the wonder of America.”
There was some wonder about Holder’s nomination, given the promise of opposition, particularly from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who was concerned about Holder’s actions in the pardoning of Marc Rich by President Clinton at the close of hat administration in 2001. And some of the Republican senators were concerned about his stance on national security and gun rights.
But the Queens-born Holder countered this opposition with a significant number of political notables who vouched for him and his impressive record in the legal arena, including Louis J. Freeh, former FBI director.
“I don’t think it’s fair to put the blame totally on Eric Holder,” Freeh told the Judiciary Committee two weeks ago about Holder’s connection to Rich’s clemency. “He takes responsibility, and he will never make that mistake again.”
Holder admitted that he didn’t give the pardon the scrutiny it warranted.
On Holder’s confirmation, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said, “The need for new leadership at the Department of Justice is as critical today as it’s ever been. This confirmation is going to do a great deal to restore the morale and the purpose throughout the department.”
That Justice Department, at least during the Bush years, has been targeted with a number of allegations of improper “political influence and policy disputes over wiretapping and harsh interrogation practices,” according to one report.
“This is clearly a historic moment,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network. “We supported Eric Holder and we appreciate the attention he gave to us in our cases involving Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. We need an aggressive attorney general who will uphold the law legally and deal with voter fraud.”
Sharpton hopes Holder will take a firm position on dealing with three important cases pending before the Supreme Court, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”The ball is in his court and we wait to see if he can take it to the hoop,” Sharpton added.
Taking it to the hoop will require all the finesse and desire Holder demonstrated as a basketball player at Columbia University. Looming before him as he assumes office is what is going to happen to the 250 inmates held at Guantanamo Bay, which President Obama has promised to close within a year. And will Holder move to prosecute any members of the Bush administration for wrongdoing?
Holder said at his press conference that he would ignore efforts to “criminalize policy differences.” However, he refused to rule out prosecution of Bush administration officials for their involvement in detainee questioning and surveillance operations conducted without warrants.
A “break with the immediate past” were the first words out of Holder’s mouth upon being confirmed, and now Americans anxiously wait to see if his actions match his words. Meanwhile, in a related story, Senator Tom Daschle, who was President Obama’s choice to be the new head of health and human services, withdrew from consideration on Tuesday. Facing a rough confirmation process for failing to pay more than $140,000 in taxes and interest on a car and driver provided by a wealthy Democratic fundraiser, Daschle pulled his name from nomination. During a press conference on Monday, Daschle apologized for his mistake. “When I realized the mistake, I notified officials and I paid the tax in full,” he told reporters. “It was completely inadvertent, but that’s no excuse, and I deeply apologize to President Obama, my colleagues and the American people.”
Obama had promised to stand by his nominee and apparently did not insist on Daschle’s stepping aside. If he had chosen to continue, he probably would have been confirmed. But the perception he sent was not a good one in the wake of other nominees facing similar misdeeds, all of which flies in the face of Obama’s mission of ethical reform in Washington.