Clinton stalls on court pick

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- When Justice Harry A. Blackmun announced his retirement on April 6, White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler outlined an orderly search process to choose a successor.

Mr. Cutler had been brought into the White House to manage an office in disarray since the forced resignation of his predecessor, Bernard W. Nussbaum. The day of Justice Blackmun's resignation, Mr. Cutler was vague about the selection process, but on one point he was emphatic:


"It won't be like last time," Mr. Cutler vowed.

The reference was to the tortured process last June that all but overshadowed Mr. Clinton's selection of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to replace Justice Byron R. White.


That process dragged on for 12 weeks and was marked by leaks, trial balloons and false starts. It resulted in the White House's public rejection of two candidates whom the president had characterized as highly qualified, and it cast doubt on Mr. Clinton's ability to make a decision.

Mr. Cutler's promise notwithstanding, this is precisely, almost eerily, what is happening again. In so doing, the president is highlighting the criticism that he is an indecisive chief executive.

And he is almost certain to embarrass certain candidates whose names have been floated publicly by the White House and will ultimately be rejected, perhaps including his own secretary of the interior.

Last time, word leaked that the preferred candidate was New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a politician with a wide breadth of public experience. He turned the president down -- and boasted about it publicly.

This time the word leaked that the preferred candidate was Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, also touted by the White House for his experience in the world outside the courtroom. He, too, turned the president down -- and couldn't wait to talk about it.

Last time, the process dragged on for a week, then two weeks, longer than White House officials said it would, with the two finalists said to be Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt and a federal appeals judge from Boston, Stephen G. Breyer.

Aides perplexed

This time, the process has gone on longer than perplexed White House officials can explain -- and two of the three finalists are said, once again, to be Mr. Babbitt and Judge Breyer. The third is a federal appeals judge, Richard S. Arnold of Little Rock, Ark.


Last time, the qualifications of the candidates were aired in public by anonymous White House officials. After a lunch interview with the president, Judge Breyer was said by Clinton aides to have failed to overwhelm the president with his dynamism. Small wonder. He had been summoned for the meeting from his Boston hospital bed, where he was recuperating from surgery.

Mr. Babbitt, the White House line went, was done in by his friends in the environmental community who insisted that he was too valuable at Interior to spare.

This time, the merits of the three finalists are again being discussed and dissected by White House aides and outside advisers, each of whom, it seems, has a favorite.

Judge Arnold is brilliant, they say -- but has had cancer and is from Arkansas, which could raise questions of cronyism. Judge Breyer is smart, too, and is the most easily confirmable. But there's that chemistry problem. Mr. Babbitt, the favorite of many White House aides, and the man said early in the week to be the favorite, is a politician with real-world experience. But Western Republicans in the Senate are furious with him.

Public work at the White House ground to a virtual halt this week. Mr. Clinton's schedule was essentially cleared Tuesday, then Wednesday and yesterday as his top aides kept saying that the announcement was imminent.

Yesterday, press secretary Dee Dee Myers canceled her own briefing, expecting a presidential announcement. It never came.


Clinton pleads for patience

The president himself pleaded for patience, telling reporters at a photo opportunity that he was going to ignore "all the pressure of time deadlines," adding incongruously, "You won't have to wait much longer.

"I know that this has now become the most pressing story in the capital, but this is really a story that will have implications for years -- indeed, perhaps for decades to come."

"I used to teach constitutional law," he added. "This is not a

decision I can defer to aides. . . . So I am going to attempt to do what I did last time, even against all the pressure of time deadlines, and that's to make a really good decision that I feel good about."

Last time, after the president introduced Judge Ginsburg in the Rose Garden, the first -- and only -- question he took concerned his "zig-zag" appointment process. The president flashed in anger and cut off the questions. Later, he apologized to the reporter.


Once again, people are taking pot shots at him over his style of governing -- not over his nominee.

"There's a lot of speculation around Washington that the last person who talks with President Clinton has his way," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee.

What also seems odd to legal scholars is that the president doesn't have a nominee ready to go when these retirements occur.

Sources close to the court say that Justice Blackmun told Mr. Clinton on New Year's Day 1993 -- before Mr. Clinton was even inaugurated -- that he'd be stepping down soon.

By contrast, President George Bush's two vacancies were filled within days.

A distinctive feature of the Clinton White House is the way it seems to function well only when it's in crisis.


But privately, White House officials conceded that this week's apparent disorganization helps perpetuate the image of a White House gang that can't shoot straight.

"He knows those stories are coming" about his indecision, said one White House official. "But the president says it is going to be worth waiting for."