Government

Former Hawkeye leads Justice Department for now

Matt Whitaker once envisioned a career on the other coast

Matt Whitaker, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate, speaks Jan. 21, 2014, during a caucus for all Linn County precincts at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Matt Whitaker, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate, speaks Jan. 21, 2014, during a caucus for all Linn County precincts at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Matthew Whitaker once wanted to go Hollywood, not Washington.

When he was a tight end for the Iowa Hawkeyes football team in 1991, he said he hoped to become a movie mogul.

“I’ve always loved the film industry,” Whitaker said then. “There’s a lot of money out there in that industry. There’s no reason some of that can’t be mine.”

He interned for Iowa’s athletic department, doing camera work on its cable TV show, “Hawkeye Sports Magazine.”

But Wednesday, immediately after Jeff Sessions resigned under pressure as the U.S. Attorney General, 49-year-old Ankeny native Whitaker was named to replace him for now as acting Attorney General. He had been Sessions’ chief of staff for a year.

Whitaker played in 33 games at Iowa from 1990 to 1992, with 21 career receptions and two touchdowns. He started for the Hawkeyes in the 1991 Rose Bowl.

“I’ve always felt if I got a chance to play in the NFL I’ll take it.” Whitaker said in 1991. “I’ll give it a shot. But that’s not why I came to Iowa. I didn’t come here to play minor league football and hope I get drafted.

“I came here to get an education, get as much school paid for as I can, and then get on with my life,” he said.

At the time, then-Iowa Coach Hayden Fry said that “I think Matt’s got a bright future. I’ve got a lot of good contacts out in Hollywood, and if he wants to go that route I’ll help him get a job.”

Whitaker graduated from the University of Iowa in less than four years with a degree in communication studies. He also earned a master’s of business administration and a law degree from the UI.

But he was not bound for Hollywood after all.

In 2004, under the George W. Bush administration, he was named U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, a position he held until 2009.

That same year, Whitaker was inducted into the Iowa Football Coaches Association’s Football Hall of Fame.

Without any luck, he also sought elective office in Iowa — running for state treasurer in 2002 and for the U.S. Senate in 2014. He wrote in an opinion column for The Gazette that he was in favor of repealing the Renewable Fuel Standard, an unpopular stance among the state’s corn growers and ethanol producers. He lost the Republican primary to Joni Ernst, who went on to win the seat.

Whitaker has held positions in the legal and financial sectors and for a period in 2017 served as a legal analyst for CNN before heading to the Justice Department.

Several people who had worked with him in the past used words like “gifted” and “brilliant” to describe him, also noting how important it is to have those qualities in a job that has been — and will continue to be — on the hot seat.

“He started in on his law degree and his MBA when he was still a football player at the University of Iowa. He was still on the team, I think it was his fifth year and he was going to law school and working on an MBA when he was a starting tight end on the Iowa Hawkeye football team,” said Jeff Corter, a Des Moines lawyer who knew Whitaker when he was practicing law there and attending morning Des Moines Rotary Club. “He’s a very smart guy, he’s very talented and I think he’ll do a great job out there in D.C.”

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Iowa House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Urbandale, was Whitaker’s law partner before Whitaker was named a U.S. Attorney in Iowa.

“He’s a great friend, a bright, gifted lawyer and he’s very successful,” Hagenow said. “He’s an incredibly hard worker who, when he sets his mind to do something, sets his mind to make sure it gets done — whether it’s law or politics or football.”

James Q. Lynch and Rod Boshart of The Gazette contributed.

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