Attorney General Eric Holder visits Drake's Place restaurant for a meeting with community leaders on Aug. 20 in Ferguson.

Attorney General Eric Holder visits Drake's Place restaurant for a meeting with community leaders on Aug. 20 in Ferguson. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Eric Holder’s Challenge in Ferguson

The attorney general is caught between his roles as a civil-rights advocate and a dispassionate seeker of justice.

When Eric Holder was a teenager, he was pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike for speeding and had his car searched. When Holder was in college at Columbia University, he participated in a five-day sit-in to rename a campus building after Malcolm X. And as a federal prosecutor living in Washington, he was stopped by a police officer as he was running to catch a movie in Georgetown.

For Eric Holder, civil rights is a passion and a priority he's tried to bring to the Justice Department during his time there. During Obama's second term, Holder has opened 20 investigations into civil-rights violations in police departments—more than twice as many compared with the previous five years.

After Michael Brown's shooting, the Justice Department pleaded with the Ferguson Police Department not to release footage of Brown from a convenience store robbery that was unrelated to Brown's shooting—footage that has helped the police and media paint Brown in a negative light.

Holder also has a role to play as Obama's mouthpiece—the man who is unafraid to say the things that Obama, politically, cannot. There have been rumors that Holder may step downfrom his position at the end of the year—rumors that White House officials have disputed—while Obama has to govern the nation for another two years.

During Black History Month in 2009, shortly after he assumed his role as attorney general, Holder delivered a speech that earned him both praise and criticism—and a slap on the wrist from his own boss.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," hesaid at the time. "Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."

Both Holder and Obama were on vacation in Martha's Vineyard when news of Brown's death broke. Since the shooting on Aug. 9, Holder is the only member of Obama's Cabinet to go on the ground in Ferguson. He was the second law-enforcement official to meet with Brown's parents; the first was St. Louis Highway Patrol Chief Ron Johnson.

Holder has a tricky line to walk in addressing Brown's death, and the outrage of black people in Ferguson and nationally. He has to keep the peace without being too sympathetic toward the residents of Ferguson, for fear of biasing his own department's investigation. At the same time, he has to appear sympathetic to the community, with a cause he clearly is very passionate about.

But ironically, he has to temper that passion to get the justice Brown deserves. If he appears too sympathetic toward Brown's case, Holder will be accused of "politicizing" the investigation. It doesn't help that, in the eyes of conservatives, he's already the poster child for political corruption within the Obama administration. In 2014, Holder is to conservatives what Dick Cheney was to liberals 10 years earlier. And on a more pragmatic level, it's his job as attorney general to represent the interests of U.S. law enforcement—including local police offices.

As a result, the same man who participated in sit-ins at Columbia University used less forceful tactics when he visited Ferguson on Wednesday, while stressing his personal connection to the community's pain.

"I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man," he told Ferguson residents at a local community college on Wednesday. "I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding. Pulled over.... 'Let me search your car.' ... Go through the trunk of my car, look under the seats and all this kind of stuff. I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me."

"But it can't simply be that we have a conversation that begins based on what happens on Aug. 9, and ends sometime in December, and nothing happens," he continued. "As I was just telling these young people, change is possible. The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now the attorney general of the United States. This country is capable of change. But change doesn't happen by itself."

Both Holder and Obama feel the issue of race in America on a very personal level. After 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death by George Zimmerman, Obama famously said, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."

Compare that with Obama's much more restrained remarks on Monday about Brown. Some saw Obama's speech as a bloodless response to Brown's death, especially compared with the impassioned "race speech" he gave after the verdict came down in George Zimmerman's trial.

That's likely because, as Ezra Klein writes, the White House is worried another fiery speech will only make matters worse. "For Obama," Klein writes, "the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president."

Holder has told the New Jersey Turnpike story before, and he'll likely tell it again. But sympathy alone is not enough to quiet Ferguson's pain, and too much sympathy could actually inflict more pain.