Political Hay

Eric Holder: Obama’s Harry Daugherty

Harding's Attorney General disgraced for politicizing Justice Department.

By 6.22.10

Justice is supposed to be blind.

It isn't supposed to be rocket science.

Eric Holder, he of the prestigious Stuyvesant School for the intellectually gifted, Columbia University (where he was co-captain of his basketball team), and Columbia Law School -- is neither blind nor a rocket scientist.

Neither was Harry Daugherty, he the onetime legal whiz-kid who graduated from the University of Michigan law school at the precocious age of twenty -- and then had to wait until he was old enough to take the bar exam in his native Ohio. Daugherty, who like Holder mixed his legal career with politics, wound up managing the successful presidential campaign of his friend Warren Harding. Who promptly -- against considerable advice -- appointed his friend and political ally to head the Justice Department.

Daugherty promptly turned the Justice Department into a political playground -- and wound up resigning in disgrace.

As was true of President Harding's Harry Daugherty, President Obama's Eric Holder is a smart lawyer. And also as with Daugherty, no smart lawyer devoted to the law and impartial justice would come within a country mile of the type of repeated politicization both men favored and favor. Repeatedly bad decisions that have emerged from the Department of Justice during the two men's respective tenures almost ninety years apart as the nation's top lawyer could never come from the smart lawyers each was and is reputed to be.


Unless, of course, the man now serving as Attorney General of the United States has made a coldly deliberate decision -- as did Daugherty -- to politicize the law. To intentionally, purposefully and with malice aforethought so abuse the Department of Justice for political purposes that it becomes a cesspool of the politics of injustice, with raw political sewage spilling out of the cavernous office of the attorney general and slowly seeping into every nook and cranny of a system specifically designed as a bulwark against tyranny, racism, thuggery, and political corruption itself.

Today, Attorney General Holder is attracting so many Daugherty-like allegations of bad judgment or political corruption in his running of the Justice Department that as with Daugherty's critics, the demand is increasing for an investigation into the conduct of the Attorney General himself. And his resignation.

For Holder this list includes:

The Black Panthers: the refusal to prosecute serious allegations of voter intimidation against the Black Panthers.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: the decision to charge the Christmas Day "Underwear Bomber" in Detroit as a common criminal instead of as an enemy combatant.

Detainee Photos: the decision to advise the President to release detainee abuse photographs, advise the President rejected.

• Investigating the CIA: the decision to seek a special prosecutor to investigate the CIA for decisions already checked into -- and cleared -- by a previous investigator for the Bush administration.

Trial of KSM: deciding to locate the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City. Now reports in the Daily Caller indicate the trial will be postponed -- deliberately -- until after the November mid-term elections.

• Stonewalling on terrorist detainee lawyers: After Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley flagged the conflict of interest with Holder's use of leftist lawyers who had represented terrorist detainees -- and then were placed inside the Justice Department to work on the same issue for the government -- Holder repeatedly stonewalled. Only after repeated pressure and bad publicity did bare facts emerge about the nine attorneys and their role. Holder had brushed aside any claims of conflict, refusing to name the attorneys involved.

Refusing to investigate "Jobsgate" -- now confirmed allegations by Congressman Joe Sestak and ex-Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff that they were in fact offered government jobs by the White House in return for their withdrawal from Senate races in Pennsylvania and Colorado.

Arizona Immigration Law -- the decision to challenge Arizona's recently passed immigration law dealing with illegal immigration, a law that is in fact more lenient than federal law itself. Holder first admitted he opposed the law after saying he hadn't read it. Then let Arizona Governor Jan Brewer learn of the decision from a days old interview in South America -- from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The repeatedly dismal quality of Holder's decisions (this is before BP problems enter the list), now more than any one stunningly bad decision itself, gives rise to the inevitable question of why someone hailed as so smart and professional could be so stupid and keep on making the same mistakes. One Democratic operative described a Holder decision to the media as "classic 101 boobery."

Which is where Harry Daugherty comes in. Like Holder, Daugherty was originally seen as no fool. His reputation in law school as a legal whiz kid was something that followed him as he made his way through life. Yet when he got to the Justice Department, Harding's friend and confidant made such astonishingly poor decisions about politicizing the Department --repeatedly -- that the demands for his resignation began piling up before he even had a year under his belt.

The Justice Department, it was said in an allegation about Daugherty at the time, had become far too political. In a charge that echoes the complaints over today's detainee lawyers making the Department a hot bed of detainee legal sympathizers, Daugherty's DOJ was accused of being a "center for anti-labor propaganda." A politicization -- this time on labor issues -- said to be designed deliberately to prejudice cases on those accused of obstructing the war effort in World War One.

Like Holder, Daugherty was also accused of deliberately refusing to prosecute presidential allies for what seemed to many as straight-forward crimes.. In Daugherty's case this initially meant war profiteering cases against Harding's Republican political allies. The Attorney General was accused of "very plain neglect" in his handling of the issue. Specifically cited was a case involving prominent Republican lawyer and ex-US Attorney General George Wickersham, whose clients were said to be at risk for millions of dollars if Daugherty went forward with a prosecution.

Next up was a Senate investigation -- by a Republican-controlled Senate demanding to know all manner of details about the way Daugherty ran the Justice Department. At one point the Senate demanded -- and got -- a list of all cases that had been discontinued by the Daugherty Justice Department -- in Trenton, New Jersey. Sources of the day were tight-lipped but put out the word that the U.S. Senate was now busy turning over every rock that was to be found in the Justice Department since the day Daugherty had walked in the door. It was said that a "highly undesirable atmosphere" of out-and-out politics was abroad at the Justice Department -- and it was time to do something about it.

To the rescue here rode death. 

President Harding died suddenly as what became known as the Teapot Dome scandal -- a scandal involving oil leases on government property -- began to make its way into the public consciousness. Harry Daugherty, Harding's friend and champion, was seen to have his fingerprints everywhere, although nowhere, it would turn out, that resulted in his conviction. That honor would fall to other Cabinet members. Daugherty was discovered to have knowledge of a bootlegging kickback involving his chief of staff, Jesse Smith. Smith killed himself. This small political saga, finally, was the proverbial straw that broke the Daugherty camel's back.

President Calvin Coolidge, a prim New Englander from Vermont and Massachusetts was less than enamored of Daugherty's gamy reputation. The man who became famous as Governor of Massachusetts by saying during a Boston Police strike that "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time" and quickly called up the National Guard, effectively breaking the strike, was in no mood for tolerating Daugherty. Much less was he fond of the idea of the Justice Department being so rabidly politicized.

Briskly, Daugherty was gone, with investigations now churning away. A man of considerable legal heft, future Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, was installed by Coolidge in Daugherty's place. The Justice Department was promptly depoliticized and cleaned up. A young and eager man named J. Edgar Hoover was brought in to professionalize the Department's law enforcement tools. Harry Daugherty managed to escape being convicted of anything, leaving the scene and history with a reputation as one of the worst attorneys general in U.S. history.

Yet the lesson remains that politicizing the Department of Justice is treacherous ground for an administration. Richard Nixon's John Mitchell (who did wind up serving jail time) became the poster-boy for this, authorizing wiretaps on government officials and reporters in search of leaks, a highly politicized operation that was held over his head by a now aging J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover used the wiretap information as blackmail to prolong his tenure. In the end, Mitchell, a good and decent man insisted his supporters of the day, let politics overwhelm him both at Justice and during his later tenure as Nixon's ill-fated campaign manager in 1972.

There can be no possible explanation of the conduct of the Justice Department under Holder's watch than an unquenchable desire to relentlessly politicize the Department.

The question now?

When is his resignation going to be seen by the Obama team not as a liability -- but an asset?

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.