Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

'Vanity Fair': Father-Son Dynamic May Explain Tenure Of AG Barr


Attorney General William Barr has turned out to be one of President Trump's most loyal defenders. He was out in front again yesterday after a Justice Department inspector general report found that the FBI had adequate reason back in 2016 to open an investigation into the Trump campaign's ties with Russia. In a statement, Barr pushed back, saying the FBI launched an investigation on, quote, "the thinnest of suspicions." When Barr was nominated a little more than a year ago, many speculated he would be a sort of moderating force within the administration. Instead, Barr has embraced many of the most divisive aspects of Trump's agenda. Marie Brenner, writer at large for Vanity Fair, wanted to better understand William Barr by looking at his past, and she tells me she did that in part by talking with many of his former classmates.

MARIE BRENNER: One thing that struck me was the absolute recall that his classmates had about how so deeply he believed in the power of the Constitution and executive authority from the time he entered Horace Mann in high school. Now, I don't know what you were like at 14, but certainly when I was going to high school in the middle of the Vietnam War, I wasn't debating the president's power to be able to declare war without going through Congress.

MARTIN: Right, so was that something that was happening at his kitchen table?

BRENNER: Absolutely, that was happening at his kitchen table. And they were a family - the Barrs - of contrarians. They were, you know, absolute, you know, doctrinaire Goldwater Republicans at this period in this world of a sort of a larger liberal culture.

MARTIN: That liberal culture was playing out at both Columbia University, where William Barr was attending college and at the progressive Dalton School where his father, Donald Barr, served as headmaster. Brenner says two key moments at those schools influenced William's career-defining outlook on executive power and the fierceness toward progressive politics.

BRENNER: What we're seeing now is an extremely interesting cultural moment that is being retranslated. During the late 1960s and early '70s, Donald Barr began running afoul of many of the parents at the Dalton School because he became progressively more conservative and really doubled down on a lot of the students who were the straight-A students at the Dalton School's desire to be out protesting for the Vietnam War. So what you see, I believe, in William Barr at the Justice Department is a kind of refiltering of the protests that started against his father. Bill Barr was in high school and college when the Dalton parents and trustees began an immense pushback against what many of them called the Captain Queeg who was running the Dalton School. And so he watches and absorbs his father being criticized quite publicly in The New York Times, in New York magazine, in the early 1970s as he goes into college for his father's doctrinaire conservative views.

One of the things that so interested me in learning about his early education was our current attorney general attended Columbia University and he entered in 1968. That is the time that during his freshman year that the campus erupted into this large protest. And, quite fascinatingly, he was against all of this and has told people very close to him that he was barred from entering the Columbia University library to pursue his Chinese studies work. And...

MARTIN: Because these anti-war protests, civil rights protests were happening?

BRENNER: You know, he felt that this was anarchy. And at the same time, his father was writing quite tough, really, in retrospect, pretty shocking editorials and essays in Vogue and in McCall's saying that these were kind of limousine liberal protesters who would go to these protests by taxi, you know, at one point, going after the growing Black Power movement. This kind of language and this kind of dinner table conversation you can only imagine having a certain imprinting on a son.

When William Barr's father was really fired from the Dalton School - I mean, he was allowed legally to resign. But this was - for a young man who had just graduated from Columbia, this had to be a kind of emblematic moment. And you always wonder, you know, is this score settling? One of the teachers I interviewed who had taught at the Dalton School through the Donald Barr tenure said, when I watched Billy testifying before the Senate in May, I thought, this is his father revisited. Billy has a score to settle.

MARTIN: You spoke with several of Bill Barr's friends from childhood. I mean, did you talk about today with them, and do any of them see the same man heading the Justice Department today that they knew back then?

BRENNER: The Billy Barr they went to school with, they admired. They found him so decent. They found him never belittling anyone. He was a really good guy. And what really struck me was their disappointment. You know, one of them said to me, it's an American tragedy. You start off in one way in life and you're going along and you veer into another, and it becomes very dark. And I think one...

MARTIN: But did they say that - did they say that because they just don't share his political leanings? Or are they pointing to something that they see changed from, say, the first time he was attorney general to the time now that he is serving under the Trump administration?

BRENNER: Well, no, they see a change, you know, because many of them said to me that when he was first appointed under Bush as the attorney general that he was obviously conservative but, again, a very decent, very, you know, moderate thinking, strict constitutionalist. And when Trump appointed him, they believed that we would have a surprise, you know, that he would be operating on that high level. When he first started under Trump, they were, again, mystified.

MARTIN: Marie Brenner is a writer at large for Vanity Fair. She writes about the attorney general, William Barr, for the magazine's December issue. Marie, thanks for sharing your reporting. We appreciate it.

BRENNER: Thank you, Rachel.