William Barr could become U.S. Attorney General for a second time. Here's what he had to say about the first.
William Pelham Barr served as U.S. Attorney General for President George H. W. Bush from 1991 to 1993. As part of the Bush 41 oral history project here at the Miller Center, Barr discussed his tenure in an extensive interview on April 5, 2001. Here are some selections from the interview.
On the independence of the Department of Justice:
And, contrary to some views, he [George H. W. Bush] did not intervene or interfere much at Justice. Watergate made Republican administrations very wary of the Justice Department, and I think Republican administrations—including the Reagan administration, and certainly the Bush administration—took the view that the Attorney General/Justice Department was special and different, and you didn’t mess around with it, didn’t intervene, you didn’t interfere.
. . .
Let me just give you an example of how deferential. I remember right before we indicted the Pan Am 103 people, the investigation was going along, and the President said to me, Would it be okay for you to brief us in the National Security Council on where things stand? Would it be okay? Well, I work for you; you’re the top law enforcement officer. Of course it’s okay. The attitude was, you have to be very careful with pending matters of justice.
. . .
[I]n my opinion, the role of the Department was strengthened under both Reagan and Bush, and I felt while I was there the utmost deference to the Department as the enforcer of the laws and the developer of policy. I thought that was good.
On disagreements within the Department of Justice:
[T]here were significant disagreements sometimes between the SG’s [Solicitor General] office and my office on a position. One of the big ones was the qui tam statute, which is basically a bounty hunter statute that lets private citizens sue in the name of the United States and get a bounty. I felt then, and feel now, that is an abomination and a violation of the appointments clause under the due powers of the President as well as the standing issue of the Supreme Court. So I wanted to attack the qui tam statute, and the SG’s office wanted to defend it. That was a big dispute.
. . .
I said [to President Bush],
Well, let me put it this way. The Attorney General’s balls are in the Deputy Attorney General’s pocket, and I’m not putting my balls in anyone’s pocket I don’t know.
So he sort of nodded and said,
Oh. I said,
If you think about it, Mr. President, when is there a big problem at the Department of Justice? It’s when you have a deputy and Attorney General who aren’t getting along. Look what happened to Meese with his situation. The reason you have an associate Attorney General is that the Attorney General wasn’t getting along with the deputy, and you created a third position to bypass him. Look what happened to Thornburgh. I said,
I really feel I need someone who—
You have someone in mind? I said,
Yes, I do. He said,
Well, I’ll tell you what. You just interview the guy we have in mind. But if you feel that way about it, you take your guy. I said,
Fine. That was it. I thought that was interesting.
On his role in pardons:
I didn’t really get involved in the pardon process. I think I probably did as deputy. I can’t remember what the term was in the Bush administration, but when I was Attorney General, I called them the bar chart on pardons, and I said, I would like to make sure what the standards are. I suggested some standards of my own, and I said that they should look at the little people. I wrote a little note saying, Look at the little people, not just the people with influence. The pardon thing was not really an issue for me, like the Iran-Contra verdict. And at that point, even regardless of what I said, you have to pardon at least Caspar Weinberger—
[P]olitics was not the reason we were doing this by any means, because we were enforcing immigration laws. I’m serious when I say I wouldn’t change my view because of politics. But I did point out that the notion, what do you want me to do? You want 80,000 Haitians to descend on Florida several months before the election? Come on, give me a break. Governor [Lawton] Chiles, the Democratic Governor, is supporting us in this policy? Florida will go ape. Now if you want to give me Fort something-or-other in Arkansas and let me put them there, I’ll be glad to put them on American soil. [laughter]
. . .
One of the biggest areas was immigration, which was a constant, chronic problem. People have said every Attorney General and every Deputy Attorney General who has tried to do something about immigration has been broken by the Agency. But I did try to make a lot of change . . .
. . .
In my opinion, there’s support for cracking down on illegal immigration as they come in. Where you start getting into the more political problem is where you try to take away benefits and protections while the people are here. But most people, including Hispanics in California, supported aggressive stands to stop them coming across the border.
On the Mexican border
It was out of control but controllable and getting under control. Good steps were taken, and the Bush administration was getting a lot more control over it, including putting up the fences. I believe that with a little bit more resources— I had a study done and a plan done for how a few tens of millions of dollars more investment could make a world of difference along the Mexican border. There were just certain gaps that we had to fill. But good effective fences did cut down substantially on immigration. It was a big issue out in California, so I devoted a lot of effort and energy to doing our best to shut down the border in California.
On relationships in Congress
I dealt a lot with [Edward] Kennedy trying to reach agreement, where we could reach agreement on certain civil rights—I always enjoyed dealing with Kennedy because he was very direct and he knew how to make a deal. It’s very easy dealing with him. He’d call up and say,
Look, I know you don’t want to go too far in this direction, but here’s an issue we can isolate where I think you would agree with me. And if I guarantee you that this bill will stay at that dimension and we won’t use it as a vehicle, can we work together on it? And in return, here’s something I can do for you. We’d just cut a deal, and it was done.
. . .
Sometimes your friends are your worst enemies. Let me just say that I had great relationships on the Hill, on both sides of the aisle, because I worked them very hard—worked them not in the sense of lobbying, but I would return calls promptly, and I would make sure that when someone asked us to look at something, we’d look at something, we’d get back to them, and so forth. As a result, I had a very good relationship, except with Jack Brooks. It was very difficult dealing with the House Committee because Brooks was very ornery and very partisan . . . [H]e was constantly threatening to subpoena us and throw us in jail. He was a very partisan guy. In contrast, Chuck Schumer, who was in the House at that point, the head of the Crime Subcommittee, was very responsible and easy to deal with. Joe Biden and I had a very good relationship, became friends. It was easy dealing with him as well.
On prosecutorial power
One of the things I took away from the Department of Justice is what awesome power prosecutorial power is. There’s no other power like it in government. Maybe the power to shoot a foreigner in war, but the prosecutive power destroys lives. And who makes the judgment to bring a case, to indict? Who makes that judgment? Frequently it’s some young person who has a lot of vested interest in a particular case. Who’s supervising that person? How does that person get the perspective and the judgment and seasoning in life to take a broad view? I think it’s a real problem now.
I think the other big problem is this notion that has gained currency that there’s something wrong about political officials reviewing cases. Actually this has largely been precipitated by the liberal critics of the Department of Justice and by the Democrats on the Hill. It’s very destructive to personal liberty because what they’re trying to do is to say that political-level people shouldn’t be reviewing cases. You leave it to the professionals, leave it to the line attorney. If someone second-guesses a line attorney, then there’s something wrong.
In fact, my attitude is—and if these people only knew—the second-guessing is not for political reasons, it’s really because someone is exercising some maturity of judgment and putting things in perspective and saying,
Why would you indict this person over this? It’s like the case against [Charles] Robb, in my opinion, was not a righteous case. That was a situation where adult supervision prevailed.
On President George H. W. Bush
[T]here are certain attributes that [the American people] really do want in a President. People I talked to—even people who were upset with George Bush at the time and didn’t vote for him—think very well of him now, because in retrospect they think he was a man of honor, and a man of character, and a man they were actually proud to have as President of the United States, as frustrated as some of them may have been with his policies at times. . . . Already, I think even in retrospect, the American people look at him well. They think he was a man of dignity and character and brought respect to the office.