Slate's Lithwick On Holder: 'Hello, Legal Clarity'

02/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When people talk about how "demoralized" the Justice Department has become under the Bush administration, they're not just being glib. Imagine if you worked somewhere where, if asked to name the best boss you had during the twenty-first century, you'd have to answer "John Ashcroft." That's not just rueful ruminations-style demoralization. That's "drink yourself to sleep on a nightly basis" demoralization.

One person who's spoken to the mood at the DOJ best has been Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, and on Tuesday night's Rachel Maddow Show, Lithwick had one wish: that Attorney-General nominee Eric Holder would be immediately asked an "unambiguous question" about torture, and that Holder would provide an unambiguous answer. That, she said, would be telling, as to "whether the goalposts have been moved irrevocably post-[Michael] Mukasey, post-Alberto Gonzalez, or whether the goalposts will be moved back to where they used to be."

As it turned out, the hearings played out exactly this way, striking a stark contrast with the typical foggy memories of Gonzo and the surrealist stratagems of Mukasey. Lithwick, while acknowledging Holder's "wobbliness" on a host of issues (perhaps most galling, the FISA Court), nevertheless gave the nominee some high marks. "Wait! Who is that knocking on the courthouse doors? Hello, legal clarity. I think I recognize you from the late '80s," she said. "[Holder] is capable of answering legal questions with simple declarative sentences, and he has the refreshing ability to admit mistakes. His extraordinary qualifications and the rave reviews of his supporters notwithstanding, after years of near-unchecked lunacy at the Justice Department, that's almost enough."

Her entire piece is worth reading at length, but I am especially cheered by this:

And to the extent anyone attempts to give him a hard time, Holder just calmly pushes back. When John Cornyn, R-Texas, asks multiple times whether Holder would agree to water-board terrorists if it meant preventing the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents (and if Jack Bauer would sign his yearbook): Holder replies, "It's hard for me to answer your hypothetical without accepting your premise," explaining that from his discussions with experts, he believes people who are tortured do not yield valuable intelligence. "The premise that underlies that, I'm not willing to accept." When Cornyn tells him that he must accept the false hypothetical, Holder insists he in fact must not.

Patiently pushing back against dumb legal tautologies and a reality governed by television melodramas? I'll definitely have me some more of that.