Two leaders, different styles
The following post was published in the New York Times. It was written by Peter Baker and Matt Apuzzo.
By: Peter Baker and Matt Apuzzo
The two men in open-collar shirts sat facing each other, papers and a BlackBerry strewn on a coffee table, sober looks on both their faces. One leaned forward, gesturing with his left hand, clearly doing the talking. The other sat back in his chair, two fingers pressed to his temple as he listened intently.
When violence erupted last week after a police shooting in Missouri, President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. huddled on Martha’s Vineyard where both were on vacation. But as the most powerful African-Americans in the nation confront its enduring racial divide, they come at it from fundamentally different backgrounds and points of view.
Mr. Holder, 63, is the one leaning forward, both in the photograph released by the White House and on the issues underlying the crisis in Ferguson, Mo. A child of the civil rights era, he grew up shaped by the images of violence in Selma, Ala., and joined sit-ins at Columbia University where protesters renamed an office after Malcolm X. Now in high office, he pushes for policy changes and is to fly on Wednesday to Ferguson to personally promise justice in the case of a black teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer.
Mr. Obama, 53, is the one seemingly holding back in the White House photograph, contemplative, even brooding, as if seeking to understand how events could get so out of hand. He was too young and removed to experience the turmoil of the 1960s, growing up in a multiracial household in Hawaii and Indonesia. As he now seeks balance in an unbalanced time, he wrestles with the ghosts of history that his landmark election, however heady, failed to exorcise.
The differences between the two men have drawn criticism since the death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, as some African-Americans praise Mr. Holder for his outspokenness and lament or even denounce Mr. Obama for his caution. Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent author and Georgetown University professor, called the president’s public statement on Monday a “stunning epic failure” that seemed to blame black men rather than armed police.
“This is a community aflame with a passion to know the truth, and Obama is treating it dispassionately and with distance,” he said. “There is no blood flowing through the veins with empathy.”
On the other hand, Mr. Dyson said: “Eric feels it in his gut. It rises to his brain. It’s expressed on his tongue.” Mr. Holder, he added, is “an up and down race man who understands the moral consequences of the law on the lives of black people.”
Such sentiments exasperate the White House, which denies any substantive distance between the two. Aides to Mr. Obama said he has been less visceral in his public remarks than his comments after the Trayvon Martin case because there is still an active investigation.
“People shouldn’t presume because the attorney general might be more outspoken on a subject that he’s not consulting with the president and that the president isn’t completely supportive of the steps he’s taking,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser and close friend to both.
Mr. Obama, then heading to the Senate, and Mr. Holder, a former deputy attorney general, met in late 2004 at a Washington dinner party held by Ann Walker Marchant, a public relations executive and niece of Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Democratic power broker. “They clicked that night and they have been friends ever since,” Ms. Jarrett said.
After Mr. Obama won the presidency in 2008, he made Mr. Holder attorney general in part because of what Ms. Jarrett called “this shared vision” of overhauling the justice system. They have grown so close that they schedule Martha’s Vineyard vacations to coincide. Even closer are their wives, Michelle Obama and Dr. Sharon Malone.
If Mr. Obama gave the impression of wanting to avoid talking about race early in his presidency, Mr. Holder was more direct, such as when the new attorney general declared the United States a “nation of cowards” for not addressing race.
For Mr. Holder it was personal.
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