Weeks later, the pardon of Rich by then-President Clinton became the subject of two congressional inquiries, a federal criminal investigation and too many front-page headlines to count. Holder now finds himself marooned in the maelstrom, under attack for giving advice he never fully considered.
When Holder reached home after a bruising Senate Judiciary Committee appearance in February, he said he wanted to "crawl into bed and pull the covers up over my head."
"I'm done. Public life's over for me," Holder said. "I had a moment in time. That moment has passed."
This was not supposed to happen to Eric H. Holder Jr., who occupied one of Washington's most enviable glide paths. He had been a public corruption prosecutor, a D.C. Superior Court judge and the U.S. attorney in the District. In 1997, he ascended to second-in-command at the Justice Department, where virtually every major federal law enforcement matter in the land crossed his desk.
When he was appointed deputy attorney general to Janet Reno, his friends expected he would rise to the top job before Clinton left office. At a minimum, they believed, Holder needed only avoid mishap to become attorney general in the next Democratic administration -- and the first African American and Caribbean to occupy the post.
At a critical moment on the last full day of Clinton's term, however, Holder, who is Barbadian heritage, said he was "neutral, leaning towards favorable" on the Rich case.
Clinton cited the opinion among eight factors that persuaded him to grant a pardon, although he publicly regretted that Holder was not given more time to review the case.
Even supporters agree that Holder should have raised serious questions about pardoning Rich, a fabulously wealthy commodities dealer who spent 17 years dodging federal tax and oil trading charges. Holder himself painfully concurs: "If I had focused on this in a way that I could have, should have, the recommendation I would have given him would have been, 'Don't do this, Mr. President.' "
The Rich episode has brought down upon Holder the kind of doubts that can haunt a person's career. He was asked at a congressional hearing whether his desire to become attorney general caused him to go easy on Rich, who was represented by well-connected former White House counsel and Al Gore adviser Jack Quinn. At the same hearing, Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) told Holder he greatly respected him, but labeled his positions on Rich "almost incredible."
In political Washington, "neutral, leaning towards favorable" could become his epitaph.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) commented ruefully at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that Holder may be an unintended casualty of the intense lobbying that accompanies the pardon process.
"A lot of well-meaning people get involved and they put on a lot of pressure," Feinstein said. "And a lot of other well-meaning people get involved in that -- I think Mr. Holder is one of them, for example -- and something like this can really ruin their entire career."
Holder feels stung. The day he testified to the Judiciary Committee, his usual confident ease was absent. The overhead lights were dim and the TV spots shone brightly on a lanky 50-year-old looking lonely behind a microphone. As senators bore in, he looked weary and pained. His eyelids blinked rapidly as he registered the toughest questions.
The tempest comes after 25 sometimes exhausting years as a judge and federal prosecutor, just as Holder was preparing to ease into a life of good money, good deeds and quiet time with his wife, Sharon Malone, and their three children, Maya, 7, Brooke, 5, and Eric, 3.
Malone and Holder met in 1989 at a fundraiser for Concerned Black Men. He describes Malone, a respected obstetrician and gynecologist, as a partner who "sacrificed a great deal" while he rode his ambitions and his opportunities. "In too many ways, she has at times been a single parent."
It was 1976, two years after Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, when Holder arrived in Washington. He was born, raised and educated through law school in New York City, where his father had immigrated from Barbados. His mother was a homemaker who became secretary to the Episcopal parish priest, and his father was a real estate agent.
Holder never imagined that he would stay, but weekly visits back to New York became monthly ones, and now he heads north only once or twice a year. He spent 12 years in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, prosecuting a Philadelphia judge who took a bribe, an organized crime figure who paid one, and a Florida insurance commissioner who accepted money from the industry he oversaw.
Holder wore the robes of a Superior Court judge for five years, but when Clinton entered office and the U.S. attorney's job opened up, he applied. "I liked being a judge, but I ultimately began to feel like I was a referee in a game where I still wanted to be a player."
Then came the call in 1997 to become Reno's deputy, overseeing a $22 billion budget and 125,000 employees. He would come to call it the "most physically demanding job that I ever had."
"I had a certain hesitation about it, because it seemed more managerial than I would have liked. And I was also moving from a number one position to a number two position," Holder recalls. But it was also a big step on the stairway to the stars. Few expected Reno to last to the end of Clinton's term.
Reno stayed, but Holder was still positioned on the inside rail. He did his best to dodge trouble and minimize the number of people who considered him an enemy. He was preparing to leave office on a high. And then along came the Rich case to put Holder in the witness chair.
"I've seen it happen at different times to other people and thought, 'That's unfair.' But whatever my feelings were about other people in other situations, it's an entirely different situation when you're in the middle of it," Holder says. "Especially when I tried to reconstruct my part and I didn't think I was in the middle of it."
When the White House called on Jan. 19, Holder was not prepared.
"It was almost unimaginable to Eric that an unvetted pardon could be under consideration at that late date and time," a colleague says. "It was a very savvy strategy by Quinn to circumvent all the safeguards of the system."
Quinn says he did nothing improper as he guided Rich's case through the system. He declined to be interviewed for this article. But with the help of a hired public relations man, he argued that he kept Justice sufficiently informed -- through Holder.
The disagreement over what Quinn told Holder -- and Holder's response -- is central. The interests of the two former Clinton administration colleagues have diverged.
Quinn says it was Holder's responsibility to seek more information if he needed it, according to spokesman Peter Mirijanian.
Martin Auerbach, who worked the Rich case as a New York prosecutor, takes another view. He believes Holder "dropped the ball" but suggests that Quinn was selective about the information he gave the White House and in his discussions with the deputy attorney general.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House committee, asked Holder whether the two men had arranged a quid pro quo. Holder testily said they had not. His integrity, he asserted, should not be in question.
"The notion that career advancement was somehow related to this, that somehow Quinn would have been able to help me," Holder says, "it didn't enter into my decision-making at all."
'"Integrity" is a word used repeatedly by Holder's admirers.
"A guy of the utmost integrity," says Joseph DiGenova, a former U.S. attorney who now represents Quinn. A onetime colleague recalls Holder routinely telling his prosecutors, "Do the right thing."
"If you're inclined to look at this with a sinister, cynical eye, you could read the worst into it," says former solicitor general Seth Waxman. "But I believe Eric's version of this without hesitation, because I have such a high opinion of his integrity."
Former Democratic Party chief Robert Strauss believes Holder "has unquestionably taken scars from this, some deserved, but he will recover. This, too, will pass."
Holder is taking a few months off as he considers job offers and spends time with his family. It is probably too soon to know what effect the Rich case might have on his prospects in public life.
"My emotions change from day to day. There are times when I'm very angry about the situation. There are other times when I hear about things, read about things, that are hurtful," Holder says. "But these are choices I have made. It is not all everybody else's fault. I am somewhat responsible.
(Reprinted from the Washington Post)