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This time it was luck


DEAR Janet:

This time you were lucky.

Attorney general just five weeks, a fresh Washington face with no political baggage, Waco was on the desk when you arrived. You were allowed to fail, admired even, as you invoked the wisdom of Harry Truman: "The buck stops here." Conventional wisdom has you a hero. But that is temporary. It will end with the next debacle.

I am worried. I know you to be warm, intuitive and genuinely guileless. I remember your eulogy last year at the funeral of Bill Sadowski, Florida's late secretary of community affairs.

You recalled his marvelous grin, his innocent faith, his overflowing kindness, his belief in government's ability to do the right thing. "The darn thing really works," you quoted him. Sometimes. And, then again, it mucks things up.

To be honest, you have been cut a lot of slack by the media, the public and Congress because you are a woman with a woman's instincts for preservation of the family.

Neither Ed Meese, nor William Barr, nor even Robert F. Kennedy, whom you greatly admire, would have been allowed to offer up to the House Judiciary Committee late-night, alternative scenarios so James Bondish as tunneling through miles of pasture, under grazing cattle, past CNN cameras, into the compound in surprise attack. Or, somehow, beaming in a fine mist of Peter Pan sleeping gas that would have sent David Koresh and all his followers to Never-Never Land while they were peacefully and delicately arrested.

It's too early to close the national books on this. Too easy for us to blame it all on David Koresh. Why did Day 51 have to be Judgment Day? Even ex-President Richard Nixon, the dark nemesis of American politics, was smart enough in 1969 to leave the Indians of All Tribes alone when they occupied Alcatraz, a former federal prison on an island off San Francisco. Ignore them, he said, and they'll eventually give up. He was right; they left.

What did your employee, FBI Director William Sessions, expect when he bombarded already unstable people 24 hours a day with white lights, Tibetan chants and endless Jingle Bells?

Where is proof of child abuse, conveniently detailed, then later denied, by Mr. Sessions? Why was CS tear gas used around children who cannot wear, or fit, gas masks?

But what of you, Janet? If Texas is a state of mind, so is Washington. In the District of Columbia they scurry like cockroaches in the kitchen light at the first sign of failure or controversy. Cowardice is institutionalized. Compromise is chiseled on Moses' tablets as the 11th Commandment.

That's why you will be forgiven Waco.

You distinguished yourself with candor. It's also why you will be the next goat on the altar if you fail again. Women are still judged differently. They still have to be twice as good for one-half the responsibility.

You went to Washington under Hillary's feminist portfolio, though you are no professional feminist. Technically, you work for the president and, as a member of the Cabinet, have direct access. But there has been much public speculation about how easy that relationship will be since the Clintons have installed an old Arkansas friend as one of your top lieutenants. He, apparently, is the White House contact at Justice.

But you still have what most of the rest of Washington is denied -- overwhelming public support.

There are lessons in failure. Don't let the establishment define you, or be their water-boy. Think of your mother, Jane, in 1922, when she was declared a child prodigy and certified genius in the Macon (Ga.) Daily Telegraph:

"I found out there was nothing like being declared a genius to make people hate you. I had to go out and fight some of the boys on the block to prove I was still me."

I've got all my money on you.

Carolyn Jay Wright has known Attorney General Janet Reno for many years, when Reno was state attorney in Dade County, Fla., and Ms. Wright was editorial director of WPLG-TV and a writer for the Miami Herald. She wrote this for the Palm Beach Post.

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