At GW, Obama signals new direction for Department of Justice

President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder heralded a new era for the Department of Justice in Lisner Auditorium Friday, delicately emphasizing their intentions to move away from the policies of the Bush administration.

In brief remarks during the ceremonial installation of Holder, both men emphasized the importance of following the rule of law and not letting ideology affect the decisions of the Department of Justice. The comments were likely intended to represent a shift from the Bush administration, which was often accused of injecting politics into the legal system.

They spoke to a packed house of Justice Department staffers, congressional representatives, and various members of the legal community.

“As a student of history, [Holder] knows history’s lessons about what happens when we let politics and ideology cloud our judgment, and let fear and anger, rather than reason, dictate our policy,” Obama said. “These are mistakes he will not repeat.”

He added that he chose Holder because of his willingness to protect the rights of private citizens.

“I sought someone who recognizes the very real threats we face, but has the wisdom in those hard to call cases to find that fine balance between insuring our security and preserving our liberty,” Obama said.

Holder echoed Obama’s message, stressing the importance of following the law as written, especially in tough times.

“The power of this nation is at its zenith when the actions of our government are firmly grounded on the bedrock of the rule of law and the values that make our nation unique,” Holder said. “My friends, the true test of our nation’s greatness is whether we uphold our most cherished principles not when it is easy, but when it is hard.”

University President Steven Knapp met Obama backstage before the event, later describing him as “very warm, very genuine” and “very friendly.” Knapp spoke with Obama about GW’s achievements in public service and Obama responded that new legislation is being developed that would enable graduates to do more public service.

Knapp was unable to meet with Holder, who simultaneously arrived at another entrance. Holder served on the GW Board of Trustees from 1996 until he was appointed deputy attorney general in 1997.

Standing outside the event afterward, former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said he asked Holder to be on the Board after meeting him through mutual friends.

“One of my great regrets is that no sooner had he joined the Board of Trustees than he had to quit because he became deputy attorney general,” Trachtenberg said, adding that he thought the speech was “totally appropriate.”

Law School Dean Fred Lawrence said he was pleased by the indication of a new direction for the Department of Justice.

“The commitment to rule of law and to enforcing the rule of law as a way of keeping people safe was a very essential and powerful one,” Lawrence said.

After the event, a group of GW students in the newly formed Pre-Law Student Association all agreed that the speech was an important moment for the American legal community. Parul Monga, a junior, said it is a fundamental step forward.

“It’s not only about going in a new direction, it’s about going back to the roots of what the purpose of law is,” she said.

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