Eric Holder, Jack Quinn and the Rich pardon

It's premature to criticize Obama for his establishment-soothing appointments. But it's just as premature to heap praise on him for those appointments.

Published December 2, 2008 12:29PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

Two weeks ago, in a largely positive assessment about Obama's likely Attorney General nominee -- entitled "Preliminary facts and thoughts about Eric Holder" -- I wrote:

Holder's involvement in the sleazy Marc Rich pardon is definitely a blemish, though, given his peripheral role, it's a relatively minor one.

Since then, The New York Times has published two pieces -- an Op-Ed by George Lardner and this article today by Eric Lichtblau and David Johnston -- which make conclusively clear that the word "peripheral" is inaccurate.  Though Holder wasn't the driving force behind the Rich pardon, the assembled facts nonetheless demonstrate that his involvement in that process was substantial, continuous, and concerted:  much, much more than "peripheral."

Everyone can decide for themselves how much weight to assign to that eight-year-old episode.  It doesn't substantially alter my view of Holder's nomination, which I still view as being, on balance, a positive step.  The reasons for that conclusion raise some points that are well worth examining -- not so much about Eric Holder, but about the Washington establishment.

What is most striking -- and revealing -- about Holder's involvement in the Rich case is that, at the time, he was the number 2 person in the Justice Department, the Deputy Attorney General.  Despite that, as the NYT reports today, "Mr. Holder had more than a half-dozen contacts with Mr. Rich’s lawyers over 15 months, including phone calls, e-mail and memorandums."  

Why would such a high-ranking DOJ official be so interested in the outcome of a single prosecution of a single defendant?  Do you think that the average criminal defense attorney, representing some common criminal, even one facing massive jail time, could get the Deputy Attorney General to take a single call about the case in order to voice complaints about an overly zealous prosecution, let alone induce the DAG to devote repeated and intense attention to the defendant's plight?  To ask the question is to answer it.

So what made Holder care so much about one defendant, Marc Rich?  It's because, at a 1998 corporate dinner, a "public-relations executive" sat next to Holder, raised Marc Rich's "plight" with him, asked Holder what Rich should do, and Holder -- as the NYT today detailed -- told the executive:  "'hire a lawyer who knows the process, he comes to me, we work it out.'  Mr. Holder pointed to a former White House counsel sitting nearby. 'There’s Jack Quinn,' he said. 'He’s a perfect example.'"  Rich then followed Holder's advice and hired Quinn as his lead lawyer, and then everything magically happened for him.

Jack Quinn was Legal Counsel to Al Gore -- who, during most of Holder's work on the Rich case, looked to be the likely next President.  After his work with Gore, Quinn became Clinton's White House counsel.  He left the Clinton administration in 1996 to form a lobbying firm with Republican Ed Gillespie -- Quinn Gillespie & Associates -- one of the early pioneers of the now-common, sleazy, bipartisan influence-peddling rings that dominate how the Beltway functions.  Eric Holder swung his doors wide open for Marc Rich because Jack Quinn was a highly influential power-broker in Democratic Party circles and was a former and quite possibly future colleague of Holder's.  It's just as simple as that.  

In a very uncharacteristically -- one could even say shockingly -- cogent column this morning, The Washington Post's Richard Cohen observes:  

[The Rich pardon] suggests that Holder, whatever his other qualifications, could not say no to power. . . . Holder was involved, passively or not, in just the sort of inside-the-Beltway influence peddling that Barack Obama was elected to end.  He is not one of Obama's loathed lobbyists; he was merely their instrument.

An inability, or an unwillingness, to "say no to power" is not exactly a desired trait in an Attorney General, to put that mildly.

* * * * *

Having said all of that, why doesn't Holder's involvement in the Rich pardon make him unqualified to be Attorney General?  Aside from the vital fact that there are many other factors that must be taken into account -- principally, the likelihood that Holder can and will reverse the extreme Justice Department abuses of the last eight years, which I think is relatively high (though he should renounce his disturbing 2002 pro-Rumsfeld statements about Guantanamo and the Geneva Conventions) -- it's because none of these sins are unique to Holder.  

This is vintage Washington.  This is the filthy, venal sleaze on which both political parties feed.  It's what fuels how the Beltway operates.  It's the leading cause of why it functions as a corrupt, dysfunctional, bloated, incestuous royal court.  That's what Washington is.  For that reason, it would be next to impossible to find people who have been a part of this system who haven't been infected -- or more accurately:  who haven't infected themselves -- at one point or another with this disease.

More than anything else, Obama's endless invocation of the "change" mantra was not about promises of sharp ideological or even policy shifts -- as needed as those may be -- but instead, was about changing this core Beltway dynamic, delousing the Washington culture.  A consensus has emerged, which I more or less share, that condemning the not-yet-inaugurated Obama presidency based merely on his appointments of establishment re-treads and war supporters is premature, irrational and unfair. 

Obama has repeatedly said that his appointees are there to implement and carry out his agenda.  There are reasons to believe Obama can and will carry through on his "change" commitments, and there are also ample, reasonable grounds for doubting that he will.  Either way, though it's constructive to express views on his high-level appointments, it makes sense to wait to see what Obama himself actually does as President before assessing whether his commitments are illusory.

But -- as the Holder nomination perfectly illustrates -- one thing that has become quite tiresome, and irrational in the extreme, are those people who, on the one hand, insist that criticisms of Obama based on his appointments are premature and unfair, but on the other hand, are falling all over themselves with praise for Obama based on his supposedly ingenuous appointments.  If Obama critics are well-advised to withhold criticism until Obama is actually in office and begins to do things (as I think is true), then Obama loyalists are equally well-advised to wait before joyously celebrating the smashing success of his presidency. 

Despite that, it is now commonplace among giddy establishment pundits and Obama-reverent bloggers (two increasingly indistinguishable groups) to righteously announce that "the adults are back in charge."  David Ignatius pronounced that Robert Gates is "the most reassuring figure of all, as a reminder that the adults will be in charge here."  Fred Hiatt this morning is celebrating Obama's appointments as a "Team of Centrists" who are "proven pragmatists and team players."  One limitlessly Obama-enamored blogger adopted Beltway Seriousness lingo to gush that Obama "has effectively sidelined critics of his foreign policy vision [which includes war opponents such as Dennis Kucinich] to the kiddie table over there in the corner" and "they will all continue to screech now and then, and the adults [Obama's team of mostly establishment figures and war supporters] will look over condescendingly and tell them to pipe down or there's no dessert."  

* * * * *

The harmonious celebration of these appointments is mystifying indeed.  The Washington establishment has ruined everything it's touched over the last decade.  The Republicans have wielded more power and thus led the way, but Beltway Democrats -- including many of these appointees who are being heralded as our New Magnanimous Serious Adult Guardians -- have been acquiescent to virtually all of it, complicit in most of it, and beneficiaries of the system that spawned it all.  They're everything but crusading reformists.

It's true that these appointments, standing alone, don't prove that Obama will change nothing meaningful and that his campaign commitments were illusory.  That will be determined by him, not by them.

But it's at least just as true that these appointments don't demonstrate that joyous and transformative change and Benevolent Adult Leadership has arrived.  How could they?  These are all the same people -- Tom Daschle, Bob Gates, Greg Craig, Joe Biden, Eric Holder, Larry Summers, Hillary Clinton, to say nothing of the armies of recycled allies and underlings they'll bring with them -- who have been wielding plenty of power in Washington for years and years, who are leading pillars in the Washington establishment, who have been feeding off of the very system that Obama himself has repeatedly identified as the root of most of our problems, the system that led to Marc Rich's pardon and countless other, far more significant transgressions.

By all means, wait to judge Obama based on his decisions and policies, not who he appoints to administer them.  But that should be true for both praise and criticism.  Heaping praise and gratitude on the very same people who have been integral parts of the broken, dirty Washington system -- thank God that Tom Daschle, Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are in charge! -- borders on the masochistic, particularly without seeing evidence that they will do things differently than what they've done in the past.  Will Eric Holder operate by different rules than what guided him in the Rich pardon?  One won't know until he begins operating, but skepticism (i.e., demanding evidence before issuing praise of political officials) is far more constructive than giddy, unearned optimism.

If you're someone who basically thinks that the Washington political system works fine and has been run by the Good, Serious Adults who rule over the rabble for their own good -- in other words, if you're Fred Hiatt or David Ignatius -- it makes perfect sense to celebrate these appointments.  For anyone else, skepticism is warranted -- how could it not be? -- and praise and gratitude and celebratory Change parades make sense if and when they're actually warranted by actions.  The closer one's proximity has been to the bipartisan Washington establishment, the less entitled they are -- not the more -- to a presumption of Magnanimous, Serious, Adult, Transformative leadership.


UPDATE:  Some past highlights from the "thankfully-the-adults-are-in-charge-again" platitude:

* Al Hunt, Wall St. Journal, 4/19/2001: "When the Bush national security team was formed, many Washington insiders were ecstatic, claiming the 'adults' were back in charge."

* Robert Kagan/Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard, May 14, 2001: "During last year's presidential campaign, we were assured that George W. Bush's foreign policy team would be far superior in skill and experience to the much derided Clintonites. When Bush came to power, the 'adults' would be in charge."

Chicago Tribune, December 30, 2000: "[Ken] Ruberg said Bush also wisely opted for experience in naming such figures as Colin Powell for secretary of state and Donald Rumsfeld for defense secretary. Along with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, who was defense secretary in the Bush administration, and Condoleezza Rice, the new national security adviser, he said they give strength in the two areas the president-elect is least experienced: foreign policy and national security."

* David Ignatius, today: "I remember, too, the enthusiasm that initially greeted President George W. Bush’s all-star team -- the veterans Colin Powell at State, Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and, as a special bonus, Dick Cheney as vice president. They were certified foreign-policy superstars and, what's more, they had all worked together before."

And, as Ignatius notes, the same cliché was hauled out to christen Reagan's "all-star" team of Capser Weinberger, George Schultz and Richard Allen as the Return of the Adults. The establishment loves its own and, when the parties swap power, typically praise the new/old officials as The Return of the Adults.  Like most establishment pronouncements, the track record of that platitude isn't really promising and merits a healthy dose of wait-and-see skepticism.


UPDATE II:  Chris Bowers was on Hardball last night and -- despite saying today that he's normally too shy to do television appearances -- did a really good job of articulating the issues here in a balanced, substantive, reasoned way:

By Glenn Greenwald

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