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Sen. Riegle's retirement takes Clinton off hook ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- The decision of Democratic Sen. Don Riegle of Michigan not to seek re-election next year makes him the third of the notorious "Keating Five" to voluntarily step aside. Two other Democratic senators of the five, Alan Cranston and Dennis DeConcini, preceded him in walking away rather than undertaking the hard task of defending their assistance to convicted financier Charles Keating in the savings-and-loan scandal.

The three were the most strenuously reprimanded in the Senate investigation and report on the matter, and so their departures represent indirect justice of a sort. Each gave a different reason for quitting -- Cranston his health, DeConcini an abhorrence of further fund-raising and Riegle an unwillingness to be detracted from his efforts against the North American Free Trade Agreement and for health-care reform. But the specter of the role each of them played in the Keating affair shrouded the chances of their re-election.

Notably, the two others of the Keating Five -- Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. John Glenn -- were the least criticized in the Senate report and were easily re-elected last year. Their survival can probably be attributed to strenuous and straightforward defenses of their roles in the Keating matter back home, in McCain's case especially, and their standing as celebrities, Glenn as an astronaut and McCain as a long-suffering prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Riegle's decision came as a surprise because he has always been known as a man of extreme political ambition and one almost totally immersed in the political life. He started out as the classic young man in a hurry. In 1966, at 28, he left Harvard, where he was seeking a doctorate, and won a House seat as a Republican against a Democratic incumbent in his hometown of Flint, a heavily unionized, Democratic city.

Campaigning for him that fall was private citizen Richard Nixon, pursuing his own strategy of energetically supporting underdog candidates and winning praise as the architect of the Republican recovery after the Goldwater debacle of 1964. The Republicans gained 47 House seats, including Riegle's, and of 66 candidates Nixon campaigned for, 44 won.

Detroit newspapers quoted Riegle as saying his goal was to be elected president by the time he was 50, but events both political and personal soon clouded any such prospect. When Nixon became president and failed to extricate the United States from Vietnam, Riegle broke with his old benefactor and threw in with Rep. Pete McCloskey in his fruitless challenge for the Republican presidential nomination in 1972.

About three months after Nixon's re-election, Riegle switched parties, becoming a Democrat as his vocal opposition to the war increased. He became a close associate of Allard Lowenstein, the Democrat who had led the drive to dump President Lyndon Johnson in 1967-68. Three years later he won his Senate seat, overcoming an admission that he had had an extramarital affair with a House staff intern, details of which were taped and embarrassingly made public.

Even as a Republican, Riegle was able to win critical labor support, and it became a bedrock of his political backing in a state in which organized labor has held a virtual lock on the state Democratic Party. Hence it was no surprise that he became one of the Senate's most outspoken critics of NAFTA, even saying earlier this year that anyone who voted for the trade legislation, Democrats included, should be defeated for re-election.

The remark won him no friends at the pro-NAFTA White House, yet President Clinton had agreed to speak at a Michigan campaign fund-raiser for Riegle on Oct. 18. Clinton aides acknowledged that the president needed Riegle's support for his health care reform package. So a side benefit of Riegle's decision to quit the Senate is to let the president off the hook.

Another may be that the Democrats' chances of keeping the seat will be enhanced by removing the Keating scandal from the Michigan race next year. Two state legislators already have entered the race and others may do so now that Riegle, after 27 combative years in Congress, is taking himself out of the game.

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