In a recent New Yorker profile of Attorney General William Barr, we learn that his fealty to the Republican Party took hold early. In the first grade, while a student at Corpus Christi elementary school on the Upper West Side, he delivered a speech in favor of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign. A few years later, he was a vocal supporter of Richard Nixon, prompting a nun to promise she’d pray for him. Her prayers weren’t answered—but Barr’s enthusiasm for Nixon proved telling. He’s spent a lifetime making sure Republican presidents were never again held accountable for their misdeeds.
During his first stint as attorney general, in the George H.W. Bush administration, Barr earned the title “Cover-Up General” from New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire. Barr first met Bush when the latter was running the CIA in the 1970s, and helped the future president stonewall the Pike and Church committee investigations into the agency’s decades of coups, assassinations, and other abuses. “Intimates say the experience was formative for Barr,” the Village Voice reported in 1992, “turning him into an implacable enemy of congressional intrusions on executive prerogative.” The lesson Barr drew from Watergate was that the presidency had grown perilously weak; when he served in Bush’s Justice Department, he set to work rectifying that.
Barr was behind the legal rationale for seizing Manuel Noriega from Panama. He opposed the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Bush administration’s dealings with Baghdad in the years leading up to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, then argued that Bush had the right to launch a war against Iraq without congressional support. He also defended Bush’s pardons for those involved in the Iran-Contra affair. “It was very difficult because of the constant pendency of the Iran-Contra case,” he said years later. For Barr, what mattered was not accountability for a reckless, criminal scheme but what such oversight and prosecutions meant for presidential power.