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Eric Holder and the Race Card: The issue the media can't resist

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April 8, 2014: Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

When Eric Holder became attorney general in 2009, he declared that when it comes to discussing race, we have become “a nation of cowards.”

Now there’s plenty of discussion of race, some of it swirling around Holder himself.

In recent days, conservative critics have accused Holder of playing the race card to deflect criticism—while his liberal allies believe some of that criticism is racially motivated. It reflects a classic cultural divide in this country and in the media establishment.

Just days ago, I was questioning whether New York Magazine went too far in proclaiming that everything about the Obama presidency was somehow colored by race. The argument this time is over who’s responsible.

What set off the racial fireworks was a Hill confrontation between the nation’s first black attorney general and Rep. Louie Gohmert, who cited the House holding him in contempt two years ago over the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal.

“I realize that contempt is not a big deal to our attorney general but it is important that we have proper oversight,” Gohmert said. 

“You don't want to go there, buddy,” Holder shot back.

Holder was steamed, and in a speech the next day to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, it showed.

Decrying “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity,” Holder said: “If you don`t believe that, you look at the way -- forget about me, forget about me. You look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a house committee. Have nothing to do with me. What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”

Holder never mentioned race. He didn’t have to. Since the AG and his boss are black, and he was speaking to a largely African-American audience, it’s surely not a wild inference to say that he was implying the attacks are racially motivated.

Factually speaking, Congress gave other attorneys general—Alberto Gonzalez, John Ashcroft, Janet Reno—a very hard time. John Mitchell went to jail. Ed Meese was investigated three times by special prosecutors. But Holder seems convinced that he has been singled out.

There is something about Eric Holder that gets under the skin of his detractors, who point to the IRS investigation, Benghazi and a litany of other cases. This lit the fuse.

“He should have been fired a long time ago,” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly said. “And I don't know what -- I don't care what color he is. Do you think that the House committee called him in and say, ‘Let's get the black guy today’? Is that what they did? Does anybody believe that?”

Karl Rove, a top Bush lieutenant, called Holder’s remarks “very unattractive whining and self-pity.”

But the view from the left part of the spectrum is very different.

Sharpton, on his MSNBC show, agreed with the AG’s assessment, saying that “a strategic reason that they`re going after Holder is he`s on the line dealing with voting rights, which a lot of them want to, in my opinion, suppress the vote. I think that this is the man what is holding his finger in the dike, protecting the rights of voters and that`s why I think a lot of the venom is going against him.” 

President Obama, in his own address to the Sharpton gathering, blamed Republicans as “people who try to deny our rights” through bogus claims of voter fraud.

Charlie Rangel also chimed in: “If there’s anyone that believes the color of the president is not an issue, they’re not realistic.”

Are at least some people who can’t stand Obama and Holder influenced by the color of their skin? That’s hard to deny. But there are plenty of folks who are just unhappy with their policies and the way they do their jobs. Turning every round into a litmus test—“He played the race card!” “No, they’re prejudiced against him!”—isn’t terribly helpful.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.