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The Untold Tale of Young William Barr Among the Manhattan Liberals

Sixties conservatism was often under fire from Establishment Republicans on the right and the nascent counterculture on the left. And, as it turned out, the class of ’67—my own class as well—would be the last to graduate in the shadow of World War II’s Silent Generation. During Barr’s final semester, Johnson ramped up the draft, Muhammad Ali refused military service, Aretha Franklin released “Respect,” and Israel won the Six-Day War. As school let out, San Francisco was enveloped by the Summer of Love.

In the face of all this turbulence, Barr went off to Columbia, which erupted his freshman year. The campus strikes and shutdowns, he would later admit, were absolutely crucial in focusing his priorities. When student protests shuttered college buildings, he used the word anarchic to describe the face-off, furious that the demonstrators—with whom he tangled at the time—were interfering with his ability to enter the library for his classwork in Chinese studies.

Soon after graduation, Barr joined the CIA as a China analyst while attending George Washington law at night and married Christine Moynihan, a librarian. They would raise three daughters, all of whom would become attorneys. (A devoted family man, Barr would take a leave from work when his youngest daughter, Meg, had a recurrence of lymphoma, staying with her for months as she was isolated after a stem-cell transplant. “Meg’s illness changed our family,” he told journalist Judith Miller, “and it changed me.”)

Today, Beck and other classmates are mystified that Barr has appeared to bend, time and again, not to some clear-cut legal principle but to the will of Donald Trump. “I think it is an American tragedy,” Beck said. “You start off on one road in life and you go further and further from where you were, and you lose yourself.” Others contend that Barr has ample precedent, operating in the style of a long line of attorneys general—Robert Kennedy, John Mitchell, Alberto Gonzales, and Eric Holder —who were accused of acting as the president’s de facto defender. According to James Zirin, the legal commentator and former federal prosecutor, “Barr is from the school of L’état, c’est moi—I am the state.”

A man, in the end, not unlike his father, Donald Barr.

Last May, Susan Semel was at her country house in Hudson, New York, when she heard a familiar voice drift up the stairs. Decades earlier, Semel, a Dalton School graduate, had been hired by Donald Barr to teach social studies—and remained for 25 years. She is now a professor at City College. The sound coming from the Senate hearings pulled her toward the TV. It was a voice that she had lived with for a generation. “The tone of over-knowing moral superiority, that is what I heard,” she said. She came downstairs to see William Barr, as rumpled and stern as his father had once been, with the same granite expression that had vexed her during her early teaching career.

“You seem to have been the designated fall guy,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, said to Barr. “History will judge you harshly.” His face remained impervious. “His reaction and his voice were so similar, it was eerie,” Semel remembered. “I immediately thought, This is Donald Barr. He speaks like his father. He has the same glasses. He was trying to turn the clock back in time—just like his father once did. He was the Viking king, Canute, trying to hold back the Danes.

“The same tone, the way he moved,” Semel went on, pondering the impact of the attorney general’s relationship with two father figures. “Donald Barr and Donald Trump—the same chaotic style of management and rule by ukase. I thought immediately, This man cares deeply about his place in history. Billy has a score to settle.”

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