Raising the Barr

Raising the Barr

“This is a memoir of my life,” writes Bill Barr, the Republican lawyer who worked in two administrations as attorney general, an office created by statute in the first Congress in 1789.

Barr became the nation’s 77th A.G. in 1991 when he was appointed to the office by President George H.W. Bush. Barr made his fateful return to government in 2019 as the 85th attorney general when President Donald Trump chose him for the office. In being selected to the same position as he had held before, Barr became, oddly, the second person to serve as attorney general twice. (The first was John Crittenden of Kentucky in 1841, and again from 1850 to 1853.)

The initial duties of an A.G. were to “prosecute and conduct all suits in the Supreme Court in which the United States shall be concerned, and to give his advice and opinion upon questions of law when required by the president of the United States, or when requested by the heads of any of the departments,” such as State and Defense. Over the years the responsibilities of the federal government and of those concerning matters of justice in particular, have grown substantially. The Office of Legal Counsel carries out the opinion-writing function. It was Barr’s first Senate-confirmed job and the one in which he was happiest.

At a meeting of lawyers some 50 years ago, the question arose as to how the office of attorney general is to be defined. President Ford’s A.G., Ed Levi, said it’s “just one damn thing after another.” Barr has chosen the phrase as the title of his new book. It is a good choice, not least because it is funny—funny about serious things.

“Having held the post twice,” Barr writes, “I can say—and I know all my fellow former Attorneys General will agree—that description perfectly captures the essence of the job.”

One Damn Thing is an excellent book. At 608 pages, it is engaging and well-written, and Barr reveals himself to be a compelling political analyst of solidly conservative views.

Barr begins, however, with a prologue in which he treats his late December 2020 White House meeting with President Trump, in which the two men continued their argument over voter fraud in the presidential election. When Barr had finally had enough of Trump’s insistence that the election had been “stolen,” even though the evidence needed to prove such a claim was still inadequate, the attorney general tried to bring the conversation to an end.

“I understand you are very frustrated with me, Mr. President, and I am willing to submit my resignation. But I have”—

Bang.

A loud sound, almost like a gunshot, cut me off and jolted us all. “Accepted,” the president yelled. It took me a second to see that President Trump had slammed the table with his palm. “Accepted,” he yelled again.

Bang.

He hit the table once more; his face was quivering. “Leave, and don’t go back to your office. You are done right now. Go home,” he barked.

I nodded and said, “I understand, Mr. President.”

Barr did indeed resign, on December 23, 2020. Things were happening, as fast as you can slap a White House table.

Who is this man, who challenged a president in the Oval Office? William P. Barr was born in 1950 in New York City. He was the first of four sons in the family of Donald and Mary Barr, both of whom were on the faculty of Columbia University. The Barrs lived in an upscale, liberal neighborhood in an apartment that Bill describes as “stately.” As parents, the Barrs were old school: “Keeping order sometimes required a good spanking but more often a credible threat of force was enough to bring peace.”

Bill (followed by his brothers) went to Catholic parochial schools. Over the years, he writes, “I have come to realize that, apart from the role of my parents, my time … at the Catholic schools had the most profound formative influence on my life.” After sixth grade Bill moved to the all-boys Horace Mann School, a college preparatory institution.

For the Barrs, politics was important. Bill’s father moved from socialism to the right, becoming a conservative Republican. In 1956, at the age of six, young Bill gave a short speech in support of President Dwight Eisenhower’s reelection. Soon enough he discovered, of all things, bagpipes. “From the moment the needle first touched the vinyl and the first skirl of the bagpipe sounded,” says Barr, “I was hooked.”

As Barr moved through the Horace Mann School, he gained “a clear sense of direction in my life”: He wanted to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, working his way up by becoming an expert on China. HMS counselors told Barr that Columbia had the best China studies program in the country. Coincidentally, Columbia was in the neighborhood. Barr went to the university, graduating in 1971. He was there when the campus riots struck, marking the beginning of the school’s slow move to the left. He commenced a course in China studies at the CIA, and in 1973 was married to Christine Moynihan, whom he had met while he was at Columbia. Advised by his mother (over the mild dissent of his father) that his career plan needed some adjustments, he continued his work at the CIA while pursuing a law degree full time at night at George Washington University. (He was at the top of his class.)

Barr recalls a conversation he had with a neighbor and political historian. “He asked me what I thought so far of the Agency. I said, there’s more academic freedom at the CIA than at Columbia University.”

In 1977 the Barrs started a family, giving birth to the first of three girls. He became a successful lawyer, working in both private and public law jobs, including a clerkship with federal appeals court judge Malcom Wilkey, of the D.C. circuit. Barr also continued his scholarly interests.

That he found himself, at the age of 41, becoming Bush’s A.G. “still surprises me” and was largely “the result of chance—a sequence of coincidences,” including the untimely death by plane crash of John Heinz, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania. (Bush’s then-attorney general Richard Thornburgh vacated his office to run for the open seat and lost.) In his brief tenure as A.G., Barr confronted the surge of predatory crime even as it took on new threats to national security.

With President Bush’s defeat in his bid for reelection, Barr resigned, taking a job in the private sector. He had no idea that he might be returning to the office in which he had served under Bush. But there he was, 28 years later, being sworn in a second time as the nation’s attorney general. The president this time, of course, was a very different one—Donald Trump. And the circumstances in which Barr was being asked to serve were quite different too. As Barr writes, he “agreed to join the besieged Trump administration as it careened toward a constitutional crisis.” Thus did Barr make a choice, a “deliberate and difficult” one. But it did not work, the familiar disagreements between the two men leading to the A.G.’s resignation. For Barr, the days of one damn thing after another were over.

One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General
by William P. Barr
William Morrow, 608 pp., $35

Terry Eastland was publisher of the Weekly Standard. He previously served under Attorneys General William French Smith and Edwin Meese. His books include Energy in the Executive and Ending Affirmative Action.

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