Justice Department employees packed the Great Hall on Wednesday morning to give First Lady Michelle Obama a rousing greeting as she thanked them for their service.
Since her husband took office last year, Obama has visited several government agencies to thank federal employees for their service.
DOJ staffers filed into the standing-room-only Great Hall as early as 7:30 a.m. Others took up posts on the third-floor balcony above the auditorium. When Obama emerged from the rear of the stage just after 11:30 a.m., a sea of cameras and phones sprang up from the crowd to capture the moment. Later, shrieks rang out when Obama approached the crowd to shake hands with career attorneys and top-ranking DOJ officials.
The greeting was so warm, in fact, that Attorney General Eric Holder offered the First Lady a job at DOJ.
“I can tell you that, like the president, she has a brilliant legal mind,” Holder said. “I have been so impressed by her legal skills that I’m going to make her an offer — right now — to join the best lawyers in the world, right here at DOJ.”
The First Lady praised both the Attorney General and the work of the employees of the Department of Justice.
“One of the privileges of being First Lady has been the opportunity to visit so many agencies over the past year or so so that I can thank all of you, really, for the hard work and dedication that you’ve all put in,” Obama said. “You put in long hours. And a lot of people look at the President, they look at your boss, and they say, well, you’re working hard. But the truth is — and we all know this — you all are putting in that kind of time as well. You’re making sacrifices. You miss time with your families. And often, you do it without getting any recognition from anyone.
“So I want to let you know how much that we value everything that you’re doing here, however long you’ve been doing it,” she added.
Obama also gave a shout-out to those who work outside Justice Department headquarters — Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employees, FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and the U.S. Attorneys.
Justice Department employees Celeste Simmons, Janean Bentley, and Cee Cee Simpson Allaway said they were the first three to arrive at 7:30 a.m.
“It was worth it, I would do it again anytime,” said Simmons, an investigator in the Civil Rights Division’s Disability Rights Section who has been with the department for 15 years.
They were joined by Sabrina Jenkins, a fellow employee in the Disability Rights Section, and Angela Parks of the Criminal Division. All said they were thrilled to meet and shake hands with the First Lady and showed off pictures they took of Obama.
Joining the First Lady and the Attorney General on stage were some of the Justice Department’s longest serving employees, including Jack Keeney, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division, who at age 88 still holds an office at DOJ headquarters.
The other long-serving employees on stage were: Civil Division trial attorney Marshall T. Golding, who joined DOJ in April 1957; FBI employee Earl F. Hostetler Jr., who began his career in June 1961; Justice Management Division security specialist Barbara J. Russell, who began her career with the Department of Justice in July 1961; Civil Division legal assistant William H. Wiggins, who has been with DOJ since December 1963; FBI telephone operator Mary C. Smith, who entered the FBI in June 1964; FBI support services technician Marcia M. Taylor, who began her FBI career in September 1965; Civil Division mail clerk Eugene W. Crane, who started his career at DOJ in January 1966; Civil Division Appellate Staff Director Robert E. Kopp, who has served since August 1966; Justice Management Division Procurement Analyst Patricia Ann Belcher; Civil Rights Analyst Myra D. Wastaff; and Senior Counsel for Appeals in the Criminal Division Sidney Glazer.
Officials seated in front of the crowd included Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, and Assistant Attorneys General Tony West, Christine Varney and Ronald Weich.
Story updated at 4:45 p.m.
Attorney General Eric Holder and First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks are available below.
Good morning. Thank you all for being here today to help me welcome our nation’s First Lady – and my good friend – to the Department of Justice.
In the recent past, including many miles on the campaign trail, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know our First Lady. And I can tell you that, like the President, she has a brilliant legal mind. I have been so impressed by her legal skills that I’m going to make her an offer- right now- to join the best lawyers in the world, right here at DOJ.
I’ve also learned that she has a deep appreciation for the work and many responsibilities of the Justice Department. But what’s impressed me most, and what I admire most about her, is her commitment to justice.
Many of you already know her extraordinary story – that she grew up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago and, with hard work, determination and the support of a loving family, made her way to Princeton University, then Harvard Law School, then on to one of the nation’s premier law firms. And she decided long ago – long before she became First Lady – that she wanted to harness the power of the law to generate positive social change and build a more just society.
That commitment took her in unexpected directions. As she once put it – and I know many of you feel this way, too – she realized that she, “wanted to have a career motivated by passion and not just money.” And so she built on her legal training to serve communities, assemble volunteers, and – despite the pay cut – spend her time inspiring young people to enter public service themselves.
And did I mention that it was because of the law that she met a certain summer associate – and her law firm mentee – who would change her life? She has said that she, and I quote, “wasn’t expecting much” of the young Harvard Law student who everyone else was raving about. But shortly after they met, our President summoned all the charm he could muster - and all the moves he had – and apparently it worked. From that time on, our First Lady has been, not only a distinguished attorney, executive, and community leader, but also, in her husband’s words, “the rock” of her family. Indeed, she does seem to do it all: lawyer, advocate, visionary and, above all, the mother of two wonderful daughters, a supportive and engaged wife, and a wonderful daughter herself.
Over the past year and a half, the First Lady has also become “the rock” of our nation – a committed, and already accomplished, force for positive change, especially for young people. Last month, I had the privilege to join her in Detroit, where she kicked off a day of mentoring and called on young students to work hard and, just as important, to give back. And her “Let’s Move!” campaign to eliminate childhood obesity is already creating a healthier – and, in a very real sense, more just – America.
But her commitment and her tireless efforts don’t stop there. She also works to support military families, to serve as a role model for working women, to promote the arts and arts education, and – of course – to continue to make sure that my boss still takes out the trash. That can’t still be true!
When I think about the First Lady, I’m struck by the fact that, though I’ve only known her for a few years, it feels like so many. That’s the kind of friend our speaker is. From the day we met, she has made me feel welcome and at home. And so in that same spirit, I’d like us to welcome her to our home here at the Department of Justice. Ladies and gentlemen – the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Such a warm and wonderful welcome. I am thrilled to be here.
I want to start by thanking our outstanding Attorney General, Eric Holder, your boss, for that very kind introduction, and also for the wonderful work that he’s doing here at the Department of Justice. He is — I could say the same accolades as he said about me. He’s just been a phenomenal support, not just to the President but to me personally.
As he mentioned, he joined me along with celebrities and other people from the administration in Detroit to do some very important mentoring in Detroit. And he was just amazing. I mean, you know how busy he is. And my view is that if this man can take the time out to fly and spend a day talking to young people, I mean, sitting down at a table with kids, and talking about how they can pursue their dreams, how he can use his own story to show them that they can reach for passions that maybe they thought they never could, that he, in his own role, serves as a role model. If he can do that, then we all can do that.
And I know that there’s so many of you here who are following that lead. And I’m grateful to him and I’m grateful to all of you for serving in that role. So we have to give him an incredible thank you. (Applause.)
I’m told that Eric started out as a 25-year-old law graduate — school graduate working in the Public Integrity Section here at DOJ. You were 25?
ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: That was five years ago.
MRS. OBAMA: Five years ago. (Laughter.) And even though he’s been around the block a few times since then — (laughter) — only five years — he’s never lost that sense of responsibility that comes from working to uphold our highest legal principles. It’s a responsibility that all of you share, and one that some of you have been shouldering for quite a while, I understand. That’s why I want to take a moment to recognize the folks here on the stage with me. These are some of the longest-serving employees here at the Department of Justice. I don’t know the numbers here, but they’ve been here for quite some time, and I want to take some time to give them a round of applause for their dedication. (Applause.)
It’s just wonderful to see people who have made commitments for decades to government service, and it’s important for the world to see, particularly young people, to see how people are building and have built lifetimes here serving the broader community.
And I know that even though we’re here at Main Justice, I also want to recognize the men and women who serve as the faces of this agency in communities all across the country: the FBI and the ATF agents. (Applause.) The U.S. Marshals and the hardworking folks at the U.S. Attorneys offices who are on the ground every day — yay, yes — (applause) — they’re keeping us safe and protecting our most basic rights.
And when I travel, one of the great things I get to do is usually see the U.S. Attorneys on the ground. So our congratulations and thanks goes out to everyone.
One of the privileges of being First Lady has been the opportunity to visit so many agencies over the past year or so so that I can thank all of you, really, for the hard work and dedication that you’ve all put in. You put in long hours. And a lot of people look at the President, they look at your boss, and they say, well, you’re working hard. But the truth is — and we all know this — you all are putting in that kind of time as well. You’re making sacrifices. You miss time with your families. And often, you do it without getting any recognition from anyone.
So I want to let you know how much that we value everything that you’re doing here, however long you’ve been doing it, because I know we have a lot of newbies here, folks who are just joining the department as well. Yay, all right, let’s give them a round of applause, too. (Applause.)
So that’s one of the reasons I’ve been doing these visits, to make sure that you all know that even in the heat of change and all the work that goes on here, that we haven’t forgotten the work that you do and the sacrifices that you make.
These visits, though, also help me get a better understanding of what’s happening in some of these agencies, to listen, to learn about your work and to help spotlight the difference that you make in the lives of so many Americans, because when I show up, there are cameras that usually come, and I think it’s important for the people around the country to know that government is working hard for the American people and that it’s made up of everyday Americans who are making sacrifices on their behalf.
And I have to admit that I’m especially excited to be here at DOJ because we have a lot in common, many of us here. As many of you know, long before I lived in the White House, I worked in Chicago, and I did a little law thing. (Laughter.) I decided to study law for some of the same reasons many of you did. Number one, math was really hard. (Laughter.) And as my mother said, I talked a lot — (laughter) — and could write pretty good. But it’s also because I’ve seen the power that law has to change people’s lives in a very real and meaningful way. And I knew that lawyers had the ability to help turn words on a page into justice in the world –- to keep a neighborhood safe; to keep a family in their home; to leave our children a world that is a little more equal and a little more just.
And I also — as Eric mentioned — I met this guy named Barack Obama while I was studying law. (Laughter.) Yes, he was my mentee — a summer associate when I was a first-year associate. So that was a nice little perk from my law career. (Laughter.)
And here at DOJ, you all represent the ideals that drew us all to this business in the first place: those principles of equality, fairness and the rule of law. Your responsibility is not to a particular party — and that’s important for people to understand — or to a particular administration or to a President. You work for the American people. You do battle every day on behalf of the most vulnerable among us. And you touch the lives of virtually every American in ways large and small -– even if they don’t realize it.
For a department that started out with a single, part-time employee in 1789, the workload here at DOJ has really never stopped growing. And I know you all are feeling that right now.
Whether it’s keeping our nation safe from terrorist attacks, or bringing our most hardened criminals to justice, protecting consumers or safeguarding our civil rights, your work has never been more important that it is today.
That’s especially true in the wake of the worst environmental disaster that we’ve ever faced here in this nation. And I know that the Attorney General and several members of the leadership team have traveled to the Gulf, and many folks here in this agency are working tirelessly to ensure that accountability is going on, that we’re protecting taxpayer dollars, and that we’re helping those affected by the oil spill really get back on their feet.
And people need to know that the Department of Justice is at the center of that work. But it’s not just the work that you do that makes this place so special. It’s what you all bring to the work that you do. It’s the passion, and the persistence and the energy that you bring to your cases.
And I know to be here, taking pay cuts as many of you do, you’ve got to be doing it because of passion because all of you all would be at a firm somewhere if it didn’t mean something to you.
But that’s true whether you’re an attorney, a paralegal, a librarian, a support staffer — truly, the dedication that you’ve all shown is extraordinary. And I’m proud — very proud — of the work that you’ve done, and I’m extremely grateful for what you’re doing every day.
And it is not an easy job. That I know as well. But the fact that so many of you have stuck around for so long really says something about the culture of this agency.
Administrations, as you know, can come and go, but the pride that you put into your work, it never fades. As Attorney General Holder likes to say, working here isn’t just about making a living. And that’s so important for young people out there to know and to see. These jobs, it’s not about earning the dollar; it’s about making a difference in someone’s life.
And this group really takes those words to heart. I’m told that in the first six months of this year, your attorneys have taken on 20 pro bono cases -– from custody battles and landlord-tenant disputes, to domestic violence and personal injury cases. Pro bono, for those of you who don’t know, is completely free legal service.
And 50 of your attorneys, I understand, have staffed legal clinics right here in D.C., helping to write wills, to file taxes and to do other important work for members right here in this community who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
In the end, that’s really what the Department of Justice is all about. That’s really what the field of law is supposed to be about. You all help make the promise of our laws a reality for every single American regardless of their race, their standing or their political affiliation.
From the Great Hall of the Supreme Court to a folding table in a legal clinic, you help our families secure the protection that they need and the rights that they deserve. And you do it with a level of fairness and compassion that stands as an example to us all.
So for that reason, I’m here to show you, along with the rest of America, our gratitude, our admiration. These are going to be tough times. And we’re going to need every one of you to buckle up and work even harder. But it’s easier to have that conversation here because you all know what hard work means. You all know what sacrifice means.
And it’s important for us to share those values with the next generation. We need to replace you all. We need to start working on the next generation of staffers and attorneys and librarians and paralegals who are going to fill these seats in decades to come. And they’re going to do that because of the work that they see you doing. They’re going to do that because of the pride that you take in your work. We are the role models for the next generation.
So we are grateful for your work. And I just look forward to coming out there and shaking a few hands.
So thank you, thank you so much. (Applause.)