PBS NewsHour Arrives on Eric Holder Story: Why Are Republicans 'Coming Down So Hard'?

After failing for the entire calendar year of 2012 to cover the Fast and Furious scandal, the PBS NewsHour suddenly showed up on the beat Tuesday night -- not to question Holder, but to wonder why Holder was being punished by Republicans. Online, the segment title was "Why Eric Holder Is a 'Lightning Rod to Conservatives'." Why on Earth does "lightning rod" have to be in quotes? Because it's just so implausible?

Woodruff invited on two liberal journalists -- NPR legal correspondent Carrie Johnson and Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek -- to discuss how Holder is being punished because he's liberal, not whether he's stonewalled and lied to Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Carrie Johnson, to you first. Why were Republicans today again coming down so hard on the attorney general?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, almost from Eric Holder's nomination and even before his confirmation in 2009, leading Senate Republicans had insisted that they were going to target Eric Holder as vulnerable to political attack. That pattern has continued up until today, although I would say today what had been a simmer turned into a boil in many regards.

Does Woodruff or anyone else on the NewsHour remember the Democrat treatment of John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales in the last administration? Did they prepare sympathetic segments on how they were "targeted for political attack"? At least Klaidman announced the general principle that Attorneys General are common political targets, but he insisted that somehow Holder was more persecuted.

WOODRUFF: Daniel Klaidman, is there a central thread running through all of this? As Carrie Johnson just said, there has been criticism of the attorney general almost going back to day one of this administration.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN, Managing Editor, Newsweek: Yes, Carrie is right about that. It really did begin at -- start at the very beginning.  You know, I think if there is one central thread, it is that this attorney general perhaps more than any other members of the Obama Cabinet is associated with some of the more progressive policies of the Obama administration. And so he's become a lightning rod for conservatives.

It begins with his involvement in counterterrorism policies, you know, contentious, hot-button issues, closing down Guantanamo Bay [as if they ever did?], his decision to investigate Bush-era torture, and then the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in Manhattan, which was extremely controversial.

Beyond that, attorneys general are always at the center of very divisive social issues. In the case of Holder, it's gay marriage, it's immigration, and it's civil rights issues. And so all of these issues have made him a kind of a vulnerable target in some ways for partisan attack.

WOODRUFF: So, staying with you, is it -- should we just consider this more of the same, that attorneys general always face this kind of scrutiny, that they get swept up in some of the more -- the bigger controversies of every administration? Or has this reached a different level?

KLAIDMAN: Well, if it's reached a different level, it's only because I think Washington has reached a higher level of recrimination and political partisanship.

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Klaidman even tried to claim that Eric Holder really wasn't much of a liberal. He wants to make illegal aliens welcome, repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, denounce the country as racists, and pooh-pooh concerns over Black Panthers scaring voters at the polls, but really, he's in the mainstream:

Early on, he did make some political stumbles that I think reinforced this idea that he was a liberal. He gave a speech on race in which he used the infelicitous phrase the "nation of cowards." He talked about some gun control issues which were controversial.

The irony, I would say, is that Holder actually is a fairly mainstream Democrat. He's not a kind of unreconstructed liberal. This is a guy who spent most of his career as a federal prosecutor and then as a judge, where he had a reputation as a very tough sentencer. They called him Hold 'Em Holder.

The other maddening section of this segment is how Carrie Johnson elides the Justice Department's false testimony as just a few un-calculated misunderstandings:

WOODRUFF: Carrie Johnson, how has the Justice Department dealt with all this over the past three or so years? And how has the attorney general himself dealt with it?

JOHNSON: I think that's changed over time, too, Judy. At first, this administration seemed to not pay much attention to attacks, especially on the Fast and Furious operation. They told members of Congress a year-and-a-half ago there was really nothing to see. And then, as they investigated further, they realized maybe there were some mistakes and they needed to get to the bottom of who made them.

But because their response initially to Congress was, move along, there's really nothing going on, they have had to spend some time cleaning up that position.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis