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Washington rarity, Reno takes rap, becomes star ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- This is a curious city. Consider two recent developments.

Attorney General Janet Reno has become the acknowledged star of the new Clinton administration -- after making a decision that proved to be spectacularly wrong and led to the deaths of 72 people when the Branch Davidian compound in Texas went up in flames. The reason: Reno's willingness to step up and accept the full responsibility from the outset.

Budget Director Leon Panetta set off a storm of speculation a few days ago when he conceded to a group of reporters what everyone in town already knew -- that President Clinton's program is facing an uphill road in Congress. The reason: Panetta's willingness to speak candidly in public rather than dissemble.

The inferences that can be drawn from these two examples are both obvious and reasonably discouraging to anyone with any illusions about the way American government and politics should function.

Janet Reno has become a heroine in Washington because there are so few cases in which things go wrong and someone readily accepts the blame. That is the reason so many elaborate investigations are necessary. We still don't know six or seven years later who really was to blame for the Iran-contra affair, but Reno was upfront.

As she told a House Judiciary Committee hearing the other day, "It was my call and I made it the best way I knew how."

Reno's willingness to take the heat was made all the more striking the day the compound at Waco went up in flames. While she went before one television camera after another to accept the responsibility, President Clinton remained silent except for a printed statement, giving rise to the predictable suspicion he was trying to distance himself from the disaster, which is what politicians usually try to do in this capital.

The following day Clinton made a point of embracing both the responsibility and Reno in public, denying there ever had been any intention to do otherwise. But you had to wonder if the president would have acted so boldly out front if there had not been the unusual example set by his attorney general the previous night.

The result is Reno's position is probably more secure than before she made the fatally bad decision. Except for some sniping by one Democrat, Rep. John Conyers, and a couple of Republicans with partisan axes to grind, the House members treated her with the deference always accorded someone who seems to be hitting the right note with the public.

The Panetta case was intriguing for a different reason. Washington is a city in which everyone resists saying the emperor has no clothes until it is inescapably obvious. Yet here was the Clinton administration's budget director, a key official by any measure, saying aloud what only Republicans had been willing to say.

The stories about Panetta evoked what used to be called Kremlinologizing all over town the next day. Everyone was trying to figure the budget director's "strategy" in speaking the truth. Was this some new ploy designed to disarm the Republicans? Was he trying to send a message to congressional Democrats? Did his candor reflect some deep-seated conflict among presidential advisers?

The idea that Panetta was simply stating the obvious was too simple for Washington. There had to be a hidden agenda. Nobody just speaks the truth when it is possible to dissemble. It's one of the rules of political life.

The usual thing for Washington is the politician or appointed official covering his own neck, frequently while trying behind the scenes to shift the blame to someone else.

Some officials gain reputations as geniuses at distancing themselves from the bad news. That was the case when James Baker served as President Reagan's chief of staff in his first term and as George Bush's campaign manager in 1988. When something went sour, Baker always seemed to be miles away.

But Janet Reno, the former Miami prosecutor so new to Washington and its ways, simply took the rap and offered her resignation, which Clinton was wise enough to reject out of hand. She may have made the wrong call at Waco but when it went bad, she didn't run away and hide.

And in Washington these days that is rare enough to qualify the attorney general as a folk heroine.

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