[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/01/15/holder.hearings/art.holder.thu.gi.jpg caption="Attorney General-designate Eric Holder told senators Thursday that he learned from the Rich pardon incident."]
CNN Justice Department Producer
From my perch in the Senate hearing room the past two days, I was surprised to see the promised grilling of Attorney General designate Eric Holder largely fizzle, while the criticism of former President Bill Clinton almost sizzled.
Sure, a couple of Republican Senators tried to rough up Holder over his handling of the highly controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. But the pardon on that final day of the Clinton presidency was, after all, granted by Holder's boss in the Oval Office. Holder was then merely a lieutenant–the second-ranking official at Justice under Janet Reno.
Democrats and supportive witnesses leaped to Holder's defense. Nobody, however, even once tried to excuse the former President for granting the pardon. He seemed to be a man without a party.
Holder apologized all over the place for botching his role and not trying to stop the pardon. Holder helped disarm his Republican critics with his repeated admissions. He hadn't been familiar with the details. He didn't know Mrs. Rich had given President Clinton lots of money for his library. And perhaps worst, Holder didn't consult his own prosecutors and law enforcement professionals.
"It is something where I made mistakes and I learned from those mistakes," Holder said.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy was right there to catch him. "And of course the pardon was issued by President Clinton, not by you," Leahy said.
Nobody disagreed. Clinton was the shameful culprit.
On the second day, former FBI Director Louis Freeh was even more blunt.
He had vigorously opposed the pardon, but came here to praise Holder anyway as an honorable man. He unmistakably directed his venom toward the former President.
"This was a corrupt act," Freeh declared. Nobody argued.
Rich had offended almost everyone except Clinton by fleeing the country before his trial, renouncing his citizenship, and hiding his money.
Lots of other issues came up. Gitmo, surveillance, crime. The moderate-sounding, accomodating nominee was starting to annoy the anti-war folks sitting in the back quietly squirming and displaying signs about Bush War Crimes and Prosecuting the Criminal Bush. The left was not overly thrilled, they told me.
Meanwhile, Holder caught flack from Senators on the Right for having recommended clemency for Puerto Rican terrorists. But there was only one angry exchange. That was at 6pm Thursday–eight hours into a very long hearing–when tired, testy senators Leahy and Arlen Specter, like silly sophomores, argued bitterly about who got to speak for how long. Then Specter snapped at Holder, questioning his "fitness" for the job because he hadn't called for a special prosecutor to investigate then-Vice President Al Gore's fundraising.
Holder snapped back. "You're coming close to questioning my integrity and that's unacceptable." Within minutes, the smoke cleared.
It all matters, because in the wake of the politics played at the Justice Department during the short-lived reign of Alberto Gonzales, the over-riding issue in these hearings was whether this–or any–Attorney General will be truly independent of the White House and represent the people instead of the President.
The Democratic majority made clear Holder will, and he had all their votes. And, icing on the cake, he'll get at least some Republican votes. Next Wednesday they'll approve his nomination, sending him on his merry way to becoming within days the nation's first ever African American Attorney General.
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