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Behind The Scenes At Eric Holder's Last Day At The Justice Department

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Attorney General Eric Holder walked out of the Justice Department yesterday, bidding farewell to an institution where he'd worked off and on since 1976. Holder occupies a place in history as the first African-American to serve as top U.S. law enforcement officer. NPR's Carrie Johnson got behind the scenes to observe part of his last day, and she produced this audio postcard.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Inside Eric Holder's small, private office on the fifth floor of the Justice Department, the family photos are missing. The paintings are gone.

All your cupboards are bare.

ERIC HOLDER: Yeah. I took the stuff off the walls last night before I left. So, you know, I wanted to get everything ready to go so that today would be simply kiss folks, shake hands, weep a little bit, but not have to worry about the kind of logistical stuff of packing up, you know?

JOHNSON: Just a few minutes earlier in a nearby conference room, Holder presided over an emotional meeting with his senior staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEETING)

HOLDER: All right. Let's do this one last time. Matt?

JOHNSON: There were hugs and handshakes and plenty of crying. Aides sniffled and wiped their eyes. The attorney general clutched a tissue. But here's one thing Eric Holder says he won't miss - dealing with Congress. Lawmakers famously voted him in contempt a few years ago for refusing to turn over documents in a gun trafficking scandal. But on the verge of Holder's departure, Legislative Affairs Chief Peter Kadzik felt wistful, even about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEETING)

LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS CHIEF PETER KADZIK: I certainly agree with Matt. I'll certainly miss your returning to me in the midst of hearings and giving me that look like, why am I here and how can you get me out of here?

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Another aide approached with a gift. It's a framed box. Inside are gilded badges representing the federal agents Holder has led. He says those badges could come in handy when he drives across the country this summer. But first, he's got to remember how to operate a car. For six years, FBI agents have driven him around in an armored vehicle.

HOLDER: My security detail is so concerned that they're going to take me down to the FBI Academy and give me some driving lessons along with my 17-year-old son, who has a learner's permit. So Eric Jr. and Eric III will be down at the FBI learning and relearning how to drive. And I'm looking forward to that 'cause I love to drive.

JOHNSON: A few hours later, the attorney general heads downstairs for the last time to address hundreds of employees. He looks down and removes a black wristband, the one he's worn as his retirement stretched on for five long months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOLDER: I think we can officially say now that Eric Holder is free.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLDER: But it is not necessarily something that I want. I don't ever want to be free of a - of this great institution.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.