WASHINGTON — Attorney general nominee Eric Holder will face daunting challenges as the new head of the Justice Department, but those who know him say he's well suited in temperament and experience to tackle the assignment.
Holder, who'd be the first black attorney general if confirmed by the Senate, would be taking the helm of a department that's still recovering from charges of cronyism and partisan politicking and debatable opinions about the legality of harsh interrogation techniques, electronic eavesdropping habeas corpus and the laws of war.
Holder also has made it clear that he plans to steer the department away from the Bush administration's most controversial policies on terrorism, such as jailing detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison. Yet, he hasn't signaled how he'd go about making those ambitious changes.
"The challenges are going to be monumental," said Guy Lewis, a former Justice Department lawyer in the Clinton and Bush administrations. "Inevitably, the priorities are going to shift dramatically because this will be different administration. But the department is a huge battleship and just moving a few degrees takes Herculean effort."
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Similar to the president-elect who picked him, Holder is often described as having a calming effect on those around him, a trait that could serve him well in smoothing over traditionally tense relations between the U.S. attorneys' field offices and the department's Washington headquarters.
The department's standing was hurt last year by revelations that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' aides had screened job applicants based on their political credentials and by allegations that they'd pressured and fired Justice Department lawyers who were overseeing politically sensitive cases. Although his successor, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, is credited with helping to restore the department's reputation, he was seen by many inside and outside the department as a short-timer who didn't have the influence to make more dramatic changes.
A former judge, U.S. attorney in Washington and deputy attorney general under former President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2000, Holder understands how the Justice Department works and he's learned the importance of retaining the department's independence from the White House, former Justice Department officials said.
"He'll be a very a constructive and steady force for a Department of Justice that is suffering from very low morale now," said Phil Heymann, Holder's predecessor as a deputy attorney general under Clinton.
Former colleagues describe him as a "centrist" and strong law-enforcement type who formed close ties to local and state counterparts, but they said it was hard to say whether Holder will overhaul the Bush administration's domestic terrorism approach.
"He could just as easy come out and say, 'Given the state of affairs, terrorism is still the number one priority and I'm not changing that,'" Lewis said. "No matter what, he's not going to be caught flat-footed on terrorism."
Critics question whether Holder would represent true reform as a former Clinton administration appointee who approved a pardon that sparked allegations of political payback.
The controversy over his decision to sign off, in his final weeks as deputy attorney general, on Clinton's 11th-hour pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, is virtually guaranteed to surface during his Senate confirmation hearings. Rich had fled to Switzerland after being accused of evading more than $48 million in taxes. Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, had donated about $70,000 to Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign and $450,000 to Bill Clinton's presidential library fund.
House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said he was still troubled by Holder's role in the pardon.
"For nearly two years, House Democrats criticized the Bush administration for 'politicizing' the Justice Department," he said in a statement. "But Democrats are condoning something far worse than anything they accused the Bush Justice Department of by ignoring Holder's actions."
Nonetheless, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he didn't think the pardon controversy would sink Holder's confirmation and downplayed the former deputy attorney general's role in it.
"It wasn't Eric Holder that gave that pardon," Leahy said after Obama's announcement of Holder's nomination. "The president had a constitutional power to do it, and he was going to do it."
Holder acknowledged when the controversy erupted that he should've scrutinized the pardon more closely.
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