Holder: I Am Not Tone-Deaf to the Public

This weekend's anniversary of the 9/11 attacks focuses our attention once again on America's War Against Terrorism. Attorney General Eric Holder plays a key role in that fight. He spoke with CBS' Rita Braver:

For Attorney General Eric Holder, it's not just ceremonies that matter, like one honoring law enforcement officials who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

Every day for him is a reminder of terrorist threats.

But outside the confines of the Justice Department, Holder has been subject to criticism.

One was his handling of trials of accused terrorists, especially for the decision he announced - and then had to retract after it provoked an outcry - that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged Sept. 11 plotters would be tried in New York City. The trial date and place are now in limbo.

There were also controversies over his pushing to quickly close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, to his public condemnation of the new Arizona law that cracks down on undocumented immigrants.

Even some supporters say he can be a little bit tone-deaf about how things play out in public.

"No, I'm not tone-deaf. But I understand what the nature of being Attorney General is. I don't have the same latitude that other politicians might have, to put my finger up to the wind and figure out what's going to be popular. So it's not tone deafness. It's a commitment to justice and a commitment to the law. It is not tone deafness," Holder said.

"I think that is a criticism that is fundamentally unfair and political in nature," he added.

Ignoring political pressure is Holder's constant message.

"The only thing I want you to do is to make sure that you do justice," he said as he talked to Justice Department lawyers in Mobile, Alabama.

At 59, Eric Himpton Holder, Jr., is the first U.S. Attorney General to spend most of his career at the Justice Department, starting just out of Columbia Law school. "This Department of Justice formed me as a lawyer," he said.

When he took office last February, he got a hero's welcome. It was in part, he believes, a reaction to cronyism and questionable policies advocated in the Bush-era Justice Department.

"Waterboarding and things like that, from my perspective, are inconsistent with the great traditions of this department," he said.

In Holder's personal office, there's a portrait of former Attorney General Janet Reno, a Democrat for whom he served as deputy. But in his conference room, Holder has a portrait of Republican Elliot Richardson, fired by President Nixon when he refused to stop the Watergate investigation.

"There are times when you have to do what Elliot Richardson did, which is to simply say 'no' and resign," Holder said.

Though he was a key advisor to the Obama campaign, and considers the President a friend, Holder says he now keeps it purely professional.

"Without characterizing what they are, I will say we have heated conversations," Holder said.

He said the person who keeps him on an even keel is his wife, Dr. Sharon Malone, an Obstetrics and Gynaecology specialist, and he cheerfully admits that she made a lot more money than he did for many years.

"I'm a 21st Century guy, secure in who I am. And so I was more than happy to have these great government jobs while she was bringing in all the money that she made as a doctor, and was giving birth to three children in the '90s."

Holder says his sense of what is right comes from his parents, immigrants from Barbados. His father has faced discrimination in the past.

"While he was in the service, in the South and in Oklahoma, he was refused service at a couple of places where he was in uniform, and was told that African Americans, blacks, Negros, were not served. And in spite of that, I've never known a man who loved this country more than my father did," he said.

Holder raised a lot of eyebrows with his own comments on race last year, when he said: "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards."

He says he stands by those remarks.

"That comment was really urging people to get out of what I call the safety of their cocoons," he said, while reflecting on the pressure he faces as the first African-American Attorney General.

"The pressure that I feel, I think, is not something that's been imposed on me as much as it is internal."

As for his legacy, it's something he keeps in mind about how he sees his job.

"It's what I tell the people in this Department all the time: Do the right thing."