The day after the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, Eric Holder Jr. is working from Covington & Burling's elegant new Manhattan offices inside the year-old New York Times Building. He's there to prep Fernando Aguirre, the CEO of Chiquita Brands International Inc., for an interview with "60 Minutes," which will be broadcasting a segment on the company's past involvement with Colombian right-wing paramilitary forces. Last March, Holder helped Chiquita secure a slap-on-the-wrist plea deal to charges that it had paid off the terrorists.
But before the Aguirre meeting, Holder has to place a call to Warren Ballentine, a nationally syndicated African-American radio talk show host, who wants to discuss last night's primary results. While Holder waits in an empty office on the 43rd floor for Ballentine to wrap up his conversation with Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, the station plays a 1970s soul song by the O'Jays, followed by a message from the Rev. Al Sharpton encouraging listeners to vote in the upcoming presidential election.
Ballentine introduces his guest as a co-chairman of Barack Obama's campaign and then adds: "And you know what? Mr. Holder could wind up the nation's first African-American attorney general should Obama win the White House." Holder, dressed casually in gray slacks and a black sweater, draws his left hand across his throat in a "please don't go there" gesture. His prayer is answered - for now. Ballentine asks Holder to explain Obama's loss to Hillary Clinton the previous night. Holder, now wearing reading glasses, glances down at what looks like a sheet of talking points. It's clear that he's done this before. He calmly begins to hit his marks one by one: Clinton had close ties to the state's Democratic establishment; Obama made it closer than expected; Clinton netted only a handful of delegates. On the question of Obama's willingness to fight back, Holder tells Ballentine that the candidate is "a brother from Chicago" who can throw an elbow if he needs to.
Over the few minutes of the interview Ballentine agrees with everything Holder says. Then comes the last question. Assume Obama wins the presidency, Ballentine says. Is Holder attorney general?
Holder doesn't hesitate. "I got to tell you, that's going to be up to the president," he says. "And I will not be the president. I will also tell you that I am married to a wonderful woman who is a doctor. Her name is Sharon Malone. And Sharon Malone tells me that I won't be going anywhere except back to my law firm. So I think President Obama is going to have to talk to Sharon, and she's a pretty formidable person."
The answer gets a well-deserved chuckle from Ballentine. And if Holder's partners at Covington were listening -- a highly unlikely prospect -- there would have been a collective sigh of relief at his response; in seven years at the firm Holder has become a sought-after attorney, with high-profile assignments from the National Football League, Merck & Co. Inc. and Chiquita last year alone. Life is good for private citizen Eric Holder, Jr. After more than two decades in public service jobs, including stints as deputy U.S. attorney general and U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C., Holder now has time and money he never had before. Answering to his clients and partners is a lot less stressful than getting calls about an investigation into the president's improper relationship with an intern or being hauled before a congressional committee to explain his role in the pardoning of a billionaire fugitive. At Covington, Holder enjoys the status of someone who has been there, done that. He can join a board (he briefly served on MCI's board) or make a bid with an investor group for a Major League Baseball team (his group lost the contest for the Washington Nationals).
But as good as it's been for Holder at Covington, a successful private practice is not the endgame. Holder has an acute (some might say suicidal) sense of his duty to serve. As an avid student of modern American history, he is well aware that he has been a groundbreaker: the first black U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and later the first black deputy attorney general. He's rumored to have been on the short list of candidates for attorney general of both Al Gore and John Kerry.
As his answer to Ballentine suggests, Holder wears the weight of history lightly. The fact is, no matter what happens, life is going to be just fine for Holder. But the henpecked-husband routine shouldn't fool anyone. If President Obama asks his campaign co-chair to become the first African American attorney general of the United States, count on history to win out.
OBAMA AND HOLDER: A SHARED WORLDVIEW
Eric Holder knows a lot of important people. In particular, he knows a lot of successful African-Americans, starting with his ob-gyn wife, Sharon Malone. Together the couple has an impressive set of friends with enough lofty credentials and titles to fill up a few boardrooms. To name a few: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; Sutherland Asbill & Brennan trial attorney William "Billy" Martin; former U.S. Department of Labor secretary Alexis Herman; and Antoinette Bush, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, whose stepfather is another of Holder's friends: Vernon Jordan Jr., former adviser to President Bill Clinton and now senior counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. "All black people that finish college know one another," jokes Jordan.
Given Holder's social circle, it was perhaps inevitable that soon after Barack Obama became the lone African-American in the U.S. Senate, they would meet. In 2004 Holder was invited to a small dinner party hosted by Ann Walker Marchant, a niece of Vernon Jordan and a former Clinton administration White House aide. The gathering was planned to welcome Obama to Washington. Obama and Holder, seated next to one another, found that they had a lot in common. The two men, both tall and thin, each had immigrant fathers, went to Ivy Leagues schools (both attended Columbia College as undergraduates), played basketball, and, of course, believed passionately in public service. "We just clicked," says Holder matter-of-factly.
Holder says he immediately sensed Obama's talent. And despite the 10 years that separated them, he found someone who thought similarly about race. "I think we share a worldview," he says. "[Obama] is not defined by his race. He's proud of it, cognizant of the pernicious effect that race has had in our history but not defined by it."
The two kept in touch sporadically over the next couple of years. On occasion, Obama's Senate staffers asked Holder for his opinion on crime policy issues. Holder also co-hosted a fundraiser for an Obama political action committee. Then, during the spring of 2007, a few months after Obama announced he was running for president, he called Holder to ask him formally to join the campaign.
"I said, 'Come on, you don't have to sell me on this,'" recalls Holder. "I'm in."
FILLING KEY POSITIONS ON TEAM OBAMA
The Obama campaign has clearly energized Holder, who turned 57 this year. He is the utility infielder for Team Obama, playing a variety of positions: surrogate, fundraiser, strategist and source of wisdom in the ways of Washington, where Holder has lived since 1976. "There isn't a day that we don't talk," says Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of Obama's and a senior adviser to his campaign.
Holder has logged hundreds of hours and thousands of miles for Obama's campaign. Last September he and his wife attended a fundraiser at Oprah Winfrey's $50 million estate in Montecito, Calif. At the event, Holder listened to Stevie Wonder perform and rubbed elbows with basketball great Bill Russell, actress Cicely Tyson and one of his childhood heros, Sidney Poitier. In January he met with voters and campaigns staffers in such southeast Iowa towns as Washington and Davenport and spoke to college students at Iowa Wesleyan. In New Hampshire, he met Obama at a rally at Dartmouth College and joined him on a bus ride, making stops to hand out doughnuts and coffee to volunteers. In Columbia, S.C., Holder visited polling stations and monitored a group of lawyers taking calls about voting rights violations. In Pennsylvania, he worked his NFL connections to secure an endorsement for Obama from Dan Rooney, the 75-year-old owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I hope the management committee is going to be real understanding when they see my billable hours this year," says Holder.
Self-effacement is a well-used tool in the Holder charm kit. The fact is, Covington, like any firm, is thrilled to have a such a well-placed partner.
RACE TAKES CENTER STAGE
Despite the Obama campaign's best efforts, race has all too often taken center stage in the contest. Days after incendiary remarks by Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., first hit the headlines, Holder tried to make light of them. "If I see [Wright] do this one more time," says Holder, pumping his palms upward over his head, "I'm going to scream." When told that Wright was pantomiming a roof-raising, he professes ignorance. "Is that what that is?" Holder asks. "I thought that it was some Baptist Church thing I'm not familiar with [because] I'm just a dull Episcopalian."
Holder is more serious about Obama's first significant attempt to squelch the Wright controversy -- the candidate's historic March 18 speech in Philadelphia about race relations in America. For Holder, the speech was a ringing affirmation of his decision to support Obama.
Sensing history in the making, he had awakened at 5 a.m. to catch a train from Washington, D.C., to be there for the speech. "I was nervous," says Holder. "This was a big moment. This was like [John] Kennedy talking to the ministers." In Philadelphia, Holder met up with Obama; his wife, Michelle; campaign adviser Jarrett; and a few others in the greenroom at the National Constitution Center. No one except for Obama had seen the speech, which the candidate finished writing that morning. Holder, with a knot in his stomach, was surprised that Obama was so interested in his assessment of the men's college basketball tournament.
Obama's speech, which tied together thoughts and feelings that Holder had on the subject of race but had never so eloquently articulated, moved Holder to tears. As the candidate spoke, Holder says, he thought about his wife's sister Vivian Malone Jones, who was one of the first two African-Americans to enroll at the University of Alabama in the face of opposition from Gov. George Wallace.
He also thought about his dad, an immigrant from Barbados. "He's a guy who came here as a kid -- 13, 14, 15 years old, something like that -- and who loved this country I think in a way that only an immigrant can," says Holder. "And yet, you know, he tried to join the Army Air Corps. And the thing that sticks in my mind is, they laughed at him. While he's [serving] in World War II and he's in his uniform in Oklahoma, he can't get served at a luncheon counter. He has to stand up in a train coming back from Fort Bragg to Harlem. While he's in uniform. My father loved America, but he had that anger that Barack talked about."
THE CALL TO SERVICE
In a way, Eric Holder's public life was inspired by another famous speech. On Jan. 20, 1961, Holder was 9 years old and living in Queens, N.Y. Like millions of other Americans, he and his family gathered around the TV that day to watch President Kennedy's inaugural speech. They lived near LaGuardia Airport, so the television's sound was often drowned out by planes, but Holder clearly remembers hearing Kennedy's call to service -- a message that had a lasting impact on him. He keeps a copy of Kennedy's inaugural in his office at Covington & Burling.
Holder was born in the Bronx and grew up in East Elmhurst, then a mix of middle-class Italians (Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia is from the area) and African-Americans. His father sold real estate and his mother worked as a secretary. Neither of his parents went to college but they valued education and encouraged in Holder a strong work ethic. He didn't need much motivation, according to his mother, Miriam Holder. "I think he was always mature beyond his years," she says.
STRADDLING TWO WORLDS
Holder learned at a young age to navigate different worlds. Until he was 10 years old, he attended a public school in his neighborhood. Then, in the fourth grade, he was selected to participate in a program for intellectually gifted kids at a school made up of mostly white students. "After fourth grade, my schools were largely white, predominantly Jewish," recalls Holder. "But where I lived was overwhelmingly ... black. So I had my foot in both worlds."
When it came time to choose a high school, his white classmates were all taking an exam to enter the city's elite public schools, Brooklyn Technical High School, Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. Holder's score was good enough to get him into Stuyvesant -- an hour-and-a-half commute away in Manhattan. His decision to attend Stuyvesant puzzled his neighborhood friends, who opted for schools in Queens.
Holder initially second-guessed himself. He didn't like his teachers and felt overwhelmed by Stuyvesant's academic demands. But his mother pushed him to keep at it. Quickly Holder learned not only to accept his dual existence but to thrive in it. At Stuyvesant, where he was eventually selected as captain of the basketball team, he earned an academic scholarship. Many years later, he thanked his mother for giving him the confidence he needed. "The sense my mother imbued in me was that I was capable, that I could compete," wrote Holder in a 1998 essay. "She told me that things were not necessarily going to be easy for me because I was black, but that was just something I had to deal with, and whether fair or unfair, it could not be used as an excuse."
He also credited his West Indian heritage. In a 1993 profile in Legal Times (a sibling publication of The American Lawyer), Holder discussed a college essay he wrote about West Indians. Researching it, he said, helped him understand the origins of his personal drive. "It gave me an interesting perspective on how West Indians were viewed by native blacks [in the U.S.]," he said. "They were called the Black Jews because they were shopkeepers and strivers -- and they were resented."
In 1969 Holder entered college at Columbia, where again he kept one foot on the largely white campus and another in the black community that surrounded it. Holder "bloomed," says his mother, in the intellectual, political and cultural richness of Columbia. He played freshman basketball, took in shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, spent Saturdays mentoring local kids. He also participated in campus protests, including one that involved taking over the dean's office. (Holder was forgiven for the incident and is now a trustee of the university.) One college friend recalls that Holder could "talk trash" on the basketball court just as quick as he could "go Ivy League on you."
ON TO THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT
After earning his undergraduate degree in American history, Holder went straight to Columbia Law School, working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. after his first year and the U.S. Department of Justice after his second. His first job out of law school was with Justice's brand-new Public Integrity Section. Holder, who was accepted to the Justice Department's honors program, had read about the new section in the New York Post and asked the head of personnel for the criminal division to be placed there.
In the wake of Watergate, it was a heady place to be. The original staff of eight lawyers confronted corruption among public officials with the innovative use of mail fraud and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statutes. The talent level in the office was high and the cases were often headline material. At Public Integrity, Holder gained national notice for pursuing corrupt judges in Philadelphia and met some of the lawyers who are today his closest friends, including Reid Weingarten, the Steptoe & Johnson white-collar defense lawyer.
A MAN IN DEMAND
The first thing you notice about Holder's Washington, D.C., office at Covington is the mess -- books and briefs are spread out everywhere. Then you see the Justice Department souvenirs -- photos and other mementos, including even his old nameplates.
Holder clearly has an emotional attachment to the Justice Department, but the state of his office is an apt metaphor. He's at home at Covington, where, as the clutter suggests, he's become a man much in demand. When he started there in 2001, he worried about bringing in work. Then former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Louis Freeh hired him in a Texas employment discrimination case for MBNA Corp., and Holder seemed never to look back. The last 18 months have been especially busy. Last summer, not long after he negotiated Chiquita's plea deal with federal prosecutors, the NFL hired Holder to investigate dogfighting charges against former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. More recently, he represented Merck against the U.S. and five states in a settlement involving allegations of Medicaid fraud.
Clients say they're impressed with Holder's judgment and lack of ego. "For someone who has accomplished as much as he has, he's remarkably unimpressed with himself," says Jeffrey Pash, league counsel for the National Football League, which has come to use Holder frequently.
Joining Covington in 2001 -- which meant leaving public service after 25 years -- was one of the hardest transitions Holder has made. And it followed the most humiliating events of his career.
In 1997, after successful turns as a Washington, D.C., superior court judge and then U.S. aAtorney for the District of Columbia, Holder was named deputy U.S. attorney general by President Clinton. Under Attorney General Janet Reno, Holder acted as the chief operating officer of the Justice Department. It meant being immersed in the details of budget and personnel issues but also resolving disputes among department heads and briefing reporters on policy initiatives, national security issue, and major investigations. It was at times a glamorous position -- riding on Air Force One and attending state dinners -- but Holder spent most of his time in meetings, far removed from the field. Moving from his job as U.S. Attorney to the deputy AG position, Holder says, was like going from "piloting a speed boat to being the No. 2 on an ocean liner."
THE CLINTON-ERA POLITICAL TIGHTROPE AND THE MARC RICH CASE
In the Clinton-era Justice Department, Holder walked a political tightrope. He and Reno were under constant fire from both congressional Republicans and the White House over the Justice Department's use of the independent counsel statute. Congress wanted more matters to be referred to independent counsel; the Clinton administration wanted Reno to rein in investigations. It was Holder who advised Reno in the Justice Department's most crucial decision, permitting the expansion of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation into the Monica Lewinsky affair, which ultimately led to the president's impeachment.
Professionally, he was no longer the ultimate decision maker, which was at times a difficult position to be in. "[Eric] said to me not that long ago [that] one thing he realizes is that he never wants to be the second person in an organization again," says Kevin Olson, Holder's former chief of staff.
Meanwhile, the job began to take a toll on Holder's home life. His wife was the family's main breadwinner, but she was also spending more time than Holder with their young children. And even when Holder got home, he was never done working. Those, his wife says, were "the dark years."
Then came the Marc Rich case. On January 19, 2001, the last full day of the Clinton administration, Holder had a lot on his plate: commutation requests, department personnel matters, and security details for the next day's inauguration. A pardon application for a fugitive commodities trader named Marc Rich was not the most pressing issue of the day. In fact, Holder believed the application had such a small shot at being granted that he didn't give it much thought. But when the White House asked for his view on the pardon he gave it: "neutral leaning towards favorable."
The decision turned out to be a costly one for Holder. On Jan. 20, President Clinton issued 140 pardons, including one for Rich -- whose ex-wife turned out to have donated large amounts of money to the Clinton Presidential Library while Clinton was in office. Critics claimed that Rich's freedom had been bought.
For the first time in his career, Holder faced an assault on his reputation and integrity. He had been the main Justice Department contact for Rich's lawyer, John Quinn, who was then at Arnold & Porter. The two had known each other well. In fact, sometime before the 2000 election -- it's not clear when -- Holder told Quinn, a close confidant of Vice President Al Gore, that he wanted to be attorney general in a Gore administration. (Both men say the conversation had nothing to do with the Rich case.)
Quinn first asked for Holder's help on the Marc Rich case in November 2000, when Rich's prosecutors in the Southern District of New York had refused to meet with him. When Holder wasn't able to change the New York prosecutors' minds, Quinn filed a pardon application with the White House. He told White House counsel that they should contact Holder about the case, even though Holder was only vaguely familiar with its details.
The Rich matter reached its nadir for Holder on Feb. 8, 2001, when he was summoned to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Seated next to Quinn, Holder said in his statement that his conscience was clear, though he wished he had done certain things differently. But he also vented frustration at being the fall guy. "I have been angry, hurt and even somewhat disillusioned by what has transpired over the past two weeks with regard to this pardon," he said.
Holder endured hours of questioning from House members, some of it personal. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who was chairman of the oversight committee, insinuated that Holder and Quinn had engaged in a quid pro quo.
"The thing is, you wanted something from Mr. Quinn," said Burton. "You wanted his support for attorney general of the United States, and he wanted a pardon for Mr. Rich and his partner."
Holder, who sharply denied such a deal, had his backers. Reps. enry Waxman, D-Calif., Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., defended Holder. But the damage to his image had been done. In a New York Times op-ed explaining the Rich pardon, President Clinton didn't do much to protect Holder. He wrote that he regretted that Holder "did not have more time to review the case."
"It is without a doubt the darkest moment in Eric Holder's professional life," says Olson, Holder's former chief of staff. "I think it ate at him for quite a while. And what hurt him the most is the fact that, for the first time ever, his motives were called into question. And he knew he hadn't intentionally done anything wrong, but I think he realizes that he should have handled it better."
THE DECISION TO SUPPORT OBAMA
Holder was never especially close to the Clintons, the president or the first lady. He says he was grateful for the appointments he'd received in the Clinton administration and left the Justice Department as "a Clinton guy." But when Obama asked, he was ready to join the rival campaign.
"Loyalty is something I value an awful lot. And so my decision to support Barack was not necessarily a difficult one, but I had to be really moved by him. My inclination would be to support Sen. Clinton, but I was overwhelmed by Barack," says Holder, adding that Hillary Clinton did not formally request his support. "Sen. Clinton -- there's a feeling about her that I think will coalesce conservatives, Republicans [in a way] that Barack will not."
Since the campaign began, Holder has not been sentimental about his former boss. On the day of the Pennsylvania primary, MSNBC reporter Andrea Mitchell asked Holder to respond to a comment Bill Clinton had made the previous night. Clinton said Obama's campaign had "played the race card" against him. In response, Holder called Clinton's assertion "really kind of ridiculous."
Holder's wife has always believed that the Clintons owed her husband more loyalty than he was shown. (She declined to be more specific.) "Eric is a much more forgiving person [than I am]," says Malone. Indeed, friends say that Holder and his wife differ on the costs of public service. Several years ago, Holder considered running for mayor of D.C.; Malone opposed it. "I remember Sharon saying [to Eric] very directly -- she's a very direct person -- 'It's fine if you want to run for mayor, but you will be running as a single man,'" says Ann Walker Marchant, a friend of both Holder and Malone.
Malone says that's not a direct quote. She does admit that she didn't see the "upside" in being mayor, but says it didn't have anything to do with Holder's stint at Justice. Malone says she has taken "heat" for blocking her husband's pursuit of public service, which she finds amusing since it's not possible.
"At some point you have to make some peace with the fact that you're married to a public servant," she says. "It took a while."
So if President Obama pages Dr. Malone to recruit her husband, will she take the call?
"Oh, of course," she says.