Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bobby Kennedy

Mr. Holder, You’re No Bobby Kennedy

A few days ago President Obama summoned a press conference to announce the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. For all the misty-eyed platitudes, it was hard to believe that the president was speaking about the only sitting Cabinet member in U.S. history to be held in contempt of Congress. In fact, only three days ago a federal court dealt the Department of Justice a significant blow, ordering Mr. Holder to hand over a list of the documents it has withheld from the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. None of this stopped the president from praising Holder’s “deep and abiding fidelity to one of our most cherished ideals as a people, and that is equal justice under the law.” To the contrary, Holder leaves behind a dubious legacy of selective law enforcement, careless public pronouncements, and partisan abuses inconsistent with the principle of equal justice under the law.

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A few days ago President Obama summoned a press conference to announce the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. For all the misty-eyed platitudes, it was hard to believe that the president was speaking about the only sitting Cabinet member in U.S. history to be held in contempt of Congress. In fact, only three days ago a federal court dealt the Department of Justice a significant blow, ordering Mr. Holder to hand over a list of the documents it has withheld from the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. None of this stopped the president from praising Holder’s “deep and abiding fidelity to one of our most cherished ideals as a people, and that is equal justice under the law.” To the contrary, Holder leaves behind a dubious legacy of selective law enforcement, careless public pronouncements, and partisan abuses inconsistent with the principle of equal justice under the law.

The attorney general is what President Obama correctly called “America’s lawyer, the people’s lawyer.” His principal functions are to uphold the Constitution of the United States and enforce the laws duly enacted by the elected representatives of the people. At least, that’s his job in theory. In practice, Holder has behaved more like the President’s hired gun than the people’s lawyer. This was underscored by a slip of the tongue as Holder spoke yesterday: “Over the last six years,” he remarked, “our administration”–and then, correcting himself–“your administration, has made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents[.]” Honest mistake or Freudian slip, there was truth in Holder’s faux pas: this attorney general has faithfully pushed the president’s political agenda, even at the expense of the rule of law.

In his six years as attorney general, Holder has become more notable for not enforcing federal law than for enforcing it–and this should be troubling to all Americans. If we are truly to live in a government of laws and not of men, all people must be afforded equal treatment under generally applicable laws. The attorney general is in a singular position to ensure this through his prosecutorial and enforcement powers. But, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, when the president has been unable to reform existing laws through the political process, Holder has effectively nullified them by refusing to defend or enforce the statutes in question. This was the case when the DOJ refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act from judicial challenge, and it remains the case now that the DOJ refuses to enforce provisions of federal immigration and drug-control law.

All this suggests a baldfaced contempt for the role of Congress in the lawmaking process and a deep distrust of the judiciary as the proper arbiter of constitutional disputes. Under Holder’s leadership, the Department of Justice provided the executive with a way of bypassing constitutionally ordained processes, creating law and policy by executive fiat. And this subverts the very spirit of the Constitution that Holder is sworn to defend, replacing the majesty of the law with a kind of leering cynicism for political and judicial processes.

This cynicism made it all the more jarring when both Obama and Holder attempted to don the mantle of Robert F. Kennedy through repeated appeals to his legacy in yesterday’s statements. In May 1961, only a few months after the University of Georgia campus exploded with violence in response to a court’s desegregation order, Bobby Kennedy spoke to the university’s law students about Brown v. Board of Education. “I happen to believe that the 1954 decision was right,” he said. “But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law. And we both respect the law. By facing this problem honorably you have shown to all the world that we Americans are moving forward together, solving this problem under the rule of law.”

If the rule of law is to mean anything in this nation, it must command the respect of those sworn to uphold and defend it. Attorney General Holder’s successor, whoever that may be, would do well to remember that.

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New York: The Carpetbagger State Welcomes Harold Ford

You would think that out of the nearly 20 million people who live in the Empire State, the two major parties would be able to find at least two distinguished citizens fit to represent New York in the United States Senate. But the state has a sorry recent tradition of outsourcing Senate seats as carpetbagger politicians parachute in to serve in the nation’s highest deliberative body on its behalf. In 1964, though he had not lived in New York for decades, Bobby Kennedy exploited his brother’s martyrdom and his own charisma to win a Senate seat that he would briefly warm (until his own tragic assassination) while plotting to recapture the White House for his family. Thirty-six years later, Hillary Clinton, a native of suburban Chicago and former first lady of Arkansas, arrived here to establish residency and “listen” to New Yorkers, who obediently elected her to the Senate just as her husband was vacating the executive mansion in Washington.

The latest immigrant to New York to consider himself qualified to represent it in the Senate is Harold Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman who was defeated by the citizens of his native state when he ran for a Senate seat in 2006. Since then, the young and handsome Ford moved to Manhattan, where he took a job as vice chairman of Merrill Lynch and appeared as an occasional talking head on MSNBC. The New York Times reports today that some New York Democrats want Ford to challenge Kirsten Gillibrand, the upstate senator who was appointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill the seat Clinton vacated when she left for the State Department a year ago.

Like Gillibrand, Ford will have to “adjust” his positions on a number of issues if he wants to be the standard-bearer for New York’s ultraliberal Democratic Party. In the House, Gillibrand was an opponent of illegal immigration and a supporter of the right to bear arms. Since coming to the Senate and accepting the role of female Sancho Panza to senior Senator Chuck Schumer, Gillibrand has flipped on immigration and gun control. Similarly, Ford will have to ditch his opposition to gay marriage to please liberal Dems. But though Ford is a relative newcomer to the Big Apple, he appears to have always been in an “Empire State of Mind” when it came to fundraising. According to the Times, a third of the $15 million he raised for his 2006 Senate run came from New York.

Ford’s challenge is an indication of Gillibrand’s weakness. Her lackluster performance in the Senate could give the Republicans a chance to knock off an incumbent, but with Rudy Giuliani opting out of the race, Long Island Rep. Peter King appears to be the only Republican with enough stature for a chance at winning the seat. Though any Democrat, even Gillibrand, ought to be favored to win in New York, the rumblings of support for Ford, who might become the only African-American in the Senate next year (with Roland Burris’s lease of the Illinois seat left by Barack Obama about to expire), show that the possibility of a GOP tide drowning weak liberal incumbents in 2010 is being taken seriously.

Schumer, who has been traveling the state twisting arms to ensure that his protégé goes unchallenged, has a lot to lose if a Ford victory ditches the notion that he is the kingmaker of New York politics. But however it turns out, let’s hope we are spared the spectacle of this son of Tennessee claiming to be a lifelong New York Yankees fan as Hillary did in 2000. But no matter which team he says he roots for, Ford has little to worry about when it comes to sincerity on such matters. Clinton’s victory illustrated that although New Yorkers pride themselves on being able to spot a phony from out of town from a mile away, it doesn’t mean they won’t vote for one.

You would think that out of the nearly 20 million people who live in the Empire State, the two major parties would be able to find at least two distinguished citizens fit to represent New York in the United States Senate. But the state has a sorry recent tradition of outsourcing Senate seats as carpetbagger politicians parachute in to serve in the nation’s highest deliberative body on its behalf. In 1964, though he had not lived in New York for decades, Bobby Kennedy exploited his brother’s martyrdom and his own charisma to win a Senate seat that he would briefly warm (until his own tragic assassination) while plotting to recapture the White House for his family. Thirty-six years later, Hillary Clinton, a native of suburban Chicago and former first lady of Arkansas, arrived here to establish residency and “listen” to New Yorkers, who obediently elected her to the Senate just as her husband was vacating the executive mansion in Washington.

The latest immigrant to New York to consider himself qualified to represent it in the Senate is Harold Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman who was defeated by the citizens of his native state when he ran for a Senate seat in 2006. Since then, the young and handsome Ford moved to Manhattan, where he took a job as vice chairman of Merrill Lynch and appeared as an occasional talking head on MSNBC. The New York Times reports today that some New York Democrats want Ford to challenge Kirsten Gillibrand, the upstate senator who was appointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill the seat Clinton vacated when she left for the State Department a year ago.

Like Gillibrand, Ford will have to “adjust” his positions on a number of issues if he wants to be the standard-bearer for New York’s ultraliberal Democratic Party. In the House, Gillibrand was an opponent of illegal immigration and a supporter of the right to bear arms. Since coming to the Senate and accepting the role of female Sancho Panza to senior Senator Chuck Schumer, Gillibrand has flipped on immigration and gun control. Similarly, Ford will have to ditch his opposition to gay marriage to please liberal Dems. But though Ford is a relative newcomer to the Big Apple, he appears to have always been in an “Empire State of Mind” when it came to fundraising. According to the Times, a third of the $15 million he raised for his 2006 Senate run came from New York.

Ford’s challenge is an indication of Gillibrand’s weakness. Her lackluster performance in the Senate could give the Republicans a chance to knock off an incumbent, but with Rudy Giuliani opting out of the race, Long Island Rep. Peter King appears to be the only Republican with enough stature for a chance at winning the seat. Though any Democrat, even Gillibrand, ought to be favored to win in New York, the rumblings of support for Ford, who might become the only African-American in the Senate next year (with Roland Burris’s lease of the Illinois seat left by Barack Obama about to expire), show that the possibility of a GOP tide drowning weak liberal incumbents in 2010 is being taken seriously.

Schumer, who has been traveling the state twisting arms to ensure that his protégé goes unchallenged, has a lot to lose if a Ford victory ditches the notion that he is the kingmaker of New York politics. But however it turns out, let’s hope we are spared the spectacle of this son of Tennessee claiming to be a lifelong New York Yankees fan as Hillary did in 2000. But no matter which team he says he roots for, Ford has little to worry about when it comes to sincerity on such matters. Clinton’s victory illustrated that although New Yorkers pride themselves on being able to spot a phony from out of town from a mile away, it doesn’t mean they won’t vote for one.

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