It's been suggested that Obama needs an 'uncle.' In fact, every American president needs a Jiminy Cricket—a royal pain in the ass who won’t bend the rules for the sake of expediency, who upholds both the letter and the spirit of the law, who won’t just go with the flow. Someone, in short, like Attorney General Eric Holder, who is emerging as the conscience of the Barack Obama administration.
Holder is getting a lot of flack for naming a prosecutor to investigate possibly criminal acts committed by CIA interrogators during the Bush Administration’s version of the War on Terror. But the criticism won’t sway Holder one bit—and it shouldn’t. Under the Cheney-Bush (oops, I meant Bush-Cheney) regime, we saw what happens when our leaders make the same bargain with their conscience that the conniving Kingfish struck with his on "Amos ‘n’ Andy": “If I don’t bother it, it don’t bother me.”
For eight long years, the law became whatever Bush and Cheney—especially Cheney—said it was. Most of the time, there wasn’t even a peep (or should I say a chirp?) of protest from those, like former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, whose sworn duty it was to adhere to the law and the constitution. Even the right-wingers on the U.S. Supreme Court choked on the Bush-Cheney’s breathtaking claims that its policies were beyond the reach of the courts.
Under Holder, such disrespect for the law is not tolerated—even when the President himself would prefer to turn the page and move on.
Contrary to what Cheney alleged in a high-handed outburst on Fox News this past weekend (and while we're on the subject, why won't the former VEEP just go away?), reopening the criminal probe of the CIA’s past offenses is not in Obama’s perceived political interest. It would be better for him, politically, if Holder were to do what Obama has always maintained he wanted to do—not look back. He doesn’t need a controversy about the prior regime’s misdeeds at a time when he trying to move ahead with health care reform and a new strategy for Afghanistan.
One of the main reasons that Holder is such a stickler about separating politics from prosecutions is that he has been burned before when the distinction got blurred. In an incident that was rehashed during his confirmation hearings earlier this year, Holder, then Bill Clinton’s deputy attorney general, did not object to granting a Presidential pardon to the fugitive financier Marc Rich during the final days of Clinton’s presidency. (Holder has since acknowledged that his failure to oppose the pardon was “a mistake.”)
Ever since he was sworn in as the nation’s top law enforcement official, Holder seems to have been haunted by that stain on his reputation- and determined not to repeat it. As the blunt Black History month speech about in which he castigated Americans for being “a nation of cowards” about race relations illustrated, he seems determined to speak his mind and let the chips fall where they may.
Holder is, it seems, a man determined to do the right thing, regardless of the political fallout. Or, as Jiminy Cricket would say, to always let his conscience be his guide. May he continue to chirp.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.