Running a gauntlet


Boston--THOUGH HE had no ground for complaint himself, Bobby Inman had a point. It is true that men and women named to high government office these days are often savagely abused. We ought to think about what has gone wrong.

Lani Guinier, one of the victims, said on National Public Radio recently that what was said about her made her feel like Alice in Wonderland -- who was so transformed after she fell down the rabbit hole that she hardly knew who she was. The people who advised her on the confirmation process, Professor Guinier said, spoke "with a cynicism and a despair that were truly frightening."

The Guinier episode shows the main elements of the problem. Attacks are made on nominees, for reasons of ideology and politics, with a zealotry that knows no bounds of truth. The attackers are in both the press and the Senate. Nominees are ordered not to reply, and those who should defend them are too often inept or craven.

The Wall Street Journal led the attack on Professor Guinier by calling her a "quota queen." That was a straightforward lie; she did not favor racial quotas. Then Republicans called her anti-democratic because she had written about assuring minorities political weight by using a form of proportional representation, which most democratic countries do, instead of creating gerrymandered black-majority districts.

Professor Guinier was ordered by the White House to remain silent, as a courtesy to the Senate, until she had a confirmation hearing. But the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joseph Biden, let the attacks build up without a prompt hearing. And then President Clinton, ducking for political cover, dumped her.

That was a travesty of the constitutional confirmation process. The public, Professor Guinier said recently, was denied a genuine "robust debate about ideas and policies."

A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal had a long editorial deploring a weirdly gerrymandered black-majority congressional district drawn in Louisiana. The criticism was right, but the editors might have had the decency to mention who was the prime critic of such districts: Lani Guinier.

More recently there was the case of Morton Halperin, a widely respected and notably hardheaded national security expert nominated to be an assistant secretary of defense.

Because he had turned against the Vietnam War, as many or most Americans did, and because he had made sound criticisms of the CIA, Sen. Strom Thurmond and others on the right attacked Mr. Halperin. With the change in defense secretary the appointment died -- though he may get another job in the administration.

A victim of slow confirmation torture is William B. Gould IV, a Stanford law professor who was nominated by President Clinton last June to be chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. More than seven months later, he is still caught in a snarl caused by Republican partisanship and White House ineptitude.

The surprising attacker in this case is Sen. Nancy Kassebaum -- surprising because she is not usually so partisan or unfair. She has called Professor Gould "radical," though in fact he is a moderate labor-law expert respected by both sides.

Senator Kassebaum's real interest apparently is to dictate the choice for a Republican NLRB seat. The White House could probably have worked things out quickly, but it fiddled. A deal may finally be near now.

Of course politics has always played a part in confirmation. But the process is nastier now. Republicans and the right-wing press are out to harass President Clinton as if to deny the legitimacy of his election. The president, for his part, has been slow on appointments and weak in defending his choices.

When Robert Fiske Jr., an eminent New York lawyer and former U.S. attorney, was named as counsel to investigate Whitewater, the Wall Street Journal questioned the choice. Though Mr. Fiske had represented Clark Clifford, the editorial conceded that he was entitled to do so. Though Republican senators had attacked him for his role on the American Bar Association's Judiciary Committee, it said, he had actually been good there. But why, the editorial concluded, appoint someone facing such questions?

If we want good people in government, decent politicians and editors are going to have to restrain their partisan zealotry. That has done more harm than the much-criticized press invasions of privacy.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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