Eric Holder has a family—and an all-American one, at that. That’s the first thing Democrats wanted everyone to know about Barack Obama’s attorney general nominee this morning. Before we got to Marc Rich and Puerto Rican nationalists and gun rights, Democrats wanted everyone to see the man who would be the first black AG as a human being. His brother is a transit cop. His sister-in-law was the late Vivian Jones, the young woman who bravely integrated University of Alabama. His dad is a Caribbean immigrant who worked hard and educated his kids in New York City public schools. Holder himself is a 30-year civil servant in the department.

All that said, the most relevant words Holder spoke, politically, in his opening were these: “I made mistakes.” His gamble is he will take the flame out Republican criticism over Bill Clinton’s Marc Rich pardon by copping to the error plainly. Ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter is not buying it—throwing Holder’s very experience back in his face, saying his long record makes it difficult to “slough it off as a mistake.” Whatever the outcome, the testy exchange between Holder and Specter made it clear that, unlike previous confirmation hearings, this one will have fireworks.

We’ll see how well the Democrats move the conversation past pardons and on to torture, presidential power, political hirings, civil rights and the host ways in which the Justice Department has collapsed—or, been destroyed—over the past eight years.