WASHINGTON (AP) – It wasn’t difficult for Barack Obama and Eric Holder to be in the same orbit. Both were sons of immigrants, Columbia Ivy Leaguers, basketball fans and prominent African-American political figures.
They first met nearly 10 years ago, dinner guests of a mutual Washington friend who seated Holder next to the newly elected senator from Illinois.
On Thursday, Obama announced Holder would be stepping down as his attorney general, one of his longest serving Cabinet members. “This is bittersweet,” the president said.
Holder, who will stay until his successor is confirmed by the Senate, was at his side. “In good times and in bad, in things personal and in things professional, you have been there for me,” he told Obama.
Indeed, over the course of six years on the job, Holder has had his ups and downs. He also has become a rare figure – a close Washington friend of the president.
As attorney general, Holder aggressively enforced the Voting Rights Act, addressed drug-sentencing guidelines that led to disparities between white and black convicts, extended legal benefits to same-sex couples and refused to defend a law that allowed states to disregard gay marriages.
He oversaw the decision to prosecute terror suspects in US civilian courts instead of at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and helped establish a legal rationale for lethal drone strikes on suspects overseas. All were Obama priorities.
He has also been Obama’s point man in the federal response to the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old African-American last month.
“His greatest legacy has been in the areas of civil rights and race,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. He said Holder aimed for a frank discussion in the US about issues surrounding race with a dialogue “that intrinsically defies completion and so remains unfulfilled”.
While his enforcement of civil rights laws and fight against voter ID laws made him a champion of civil rights groups, they also made him a top target of conservatives, who said he put race at the forefront and endangered the integrity of elections. Early on, he was roundly criticised for an ultimately abandoned plan to try terrorism suspects in New York City.
A botched gun-running probe along the Southwest border prompted Republican calls for his resignation, and many liberals accused him of failing to hold top bankers accountable for the economic meltdown.