Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh deserves credit for a good job, on balance, in his nearly three years at the Justice Department. He restored the department's reputation that had been tainted by the favoritism and other ethical and professional lapses of his predecessor, Edwin Meese. He also brought some elements of the department that had been operating on their own back under central control. He also was able to get the department's budget increased by a whopping 40 percent. That last achievement will work to the department's advantage for years to come.
But the attorney general risks tainting his own reputation by his decision to stay in office for two months now that his campaign for Senate seat in Pennsylvania has started. The administration of justice may have to be political in the sense that a president is elected to set policy and priorities for an attorney general to carry out, but it must never be political in the sense that the attorney general has immediate personal political motivations for the way he does his duties. (Very few attorneys general in modern times have even sought political office after they left the Justice Department.)
A Thornburgh aide says, "Factually he is not a candidate." No, legally he is not a candidate, but his de facto campaign began the minute he told the Pennsylvania Republican Party's leaders that he would accept the nomination. General Thornburgh says he will not make campaign speeches nor raise funds till he resigns. How is that possible when the election is only five months away?
Mr. Thornburgh, a former governor, hasn't run for office in nine years, and he was barely re-elected in his last campaign. He has to square his own ideas with the Bush administration on some points. All this suggests a candidate who has a lot of work to do. Even if he were able to avoid formal campaigning in June and July, he would still be a candidate -- with every utterance and act scrutinized for political content by his opponent, by Pennsylvania voters and by Mr. Thornburgh himself. At the very least, he will be a distracted and conflicted individual in June and July.
There are many highly qualified Republican lawyers (including blacks and women) President Bush could choose to take over the Justice Department and work on crime, civil rights and other legislative matters without breaking stride and without giving Democratic members of Congress the excuse for political harassment they now have. It is in the best interest of the Justice Department, the Bush administration and the Thornburgh campaign for the attorney general to resign promptly.