Reno: the good, and the bad


ATTORNEY General Janet Reno has always been viewed as the least Clintonian member of the Clinton administration. Her boss believes words are deeds and images are action.

The self-styled "awkward old maid," immune to the blandishments of beltway power, is supposedly the beefy substance of this superficial government. Yet no Clinton administration figure depends more on image than the attorney general, and none has relied so much on words and symbols as a substitute for action.

Ms. Reno's defining moment, after all, was taking responsibility for Waco. That apparently meant doing nothing (except supervising a post-mortem investigation that doesn't appear to have investigated anything).

Even so, the symbolic Ms. Reno represents a new and mostly encouraging model of attorney general, a perfect fit for an age of what legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen calls "criminalized politics."

Traditionally -- at least during the past half-century -- there have been two kinds of attorneys general. One is the presidential confidant, such as Bobby Kennedy, John Mitchell or Edwin Meese, who treats the Justice Department as the president's private law firm.

The other is the faceless, trustworthy administration foot soldier. Remember Bill Barr? I didn't think so. Ms. Reno is neither.

She arrived in Washington from Miami as Caesar's wife, and so she has remained. She was ignorant and independent of insider Washington, and has stayed that way.

President Clinton never much liked her and never confided in her, and she reciprocated. She was, she said, "the people's lawyer," not his.

It is this outsiderness that has made her such a good attorney general and such a bad one. This is a time when the mere act of taking a high-level political job subjects any official to suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.

During the Clinton administration, a primary -- arguably the primary -- job of the attorney general has been to supervise the investigations of her colleagues and boss.

Ms. Reno has appointed independent counsels to investigate six of her fellow Cabinet members and her president, and has overseen innumerable internal Justice Department investigations of administration corruption.

You can argue about whether this constant surveillance of pols is a good thing, but no doubt these are the most highly publicized cases that the Justice Department handles.

No one is better suited to them than Ms. Reno. She is smart, but mostly she is trustworthy. She pays list price for cars to avoid the appearance of favoritism. She avoids the president because she doesn't want to be tainted by him.

Her employees speak with awe about her integrity. Ms. Reno's independence has given her the courage to appoint counsels to probe her colleagues and her boss, and the courage not to appoint counsels even when the wolves were baying for them.

She refused to authorize an independent investigation into campaign fund raising, despite Republican outrage, because she believed the law did not require it.

Since she rejected a fund-raising independent counsel, some Republicans have painted her as Mr. Clinton's tool, charging that she was helping him so she could keep her job.

But the charges haven't stuck.

Ms. Reno's entire success at Justice rests on her image as an ethical paragon. The independent counsel may be tainted, but thanks to Squeaky Janet, the attorney general and the Justice Department are unsullied.

To appreciate the hugeness of Ms. Reno's accomplishment, hearken back to the Reagan Justice Department. Then-Attorney General Edwin Meese was under investigation. Justice inquiries into other Reagan officials were suspect. The department was mistrusted, a national disgrace. Under any Clinton crony (imagine Webb Hubbell), the Justice Department would have been similarly compromised.

After Watergate, legal reformers proposed making the Department of Justice independent of presidential control. Ms. Reno is the next best thing: the independent attorney general.

She is independent not only by temperament, but also because she is unfireable. Every day since she took office, she has been supervising at least one probe embarrassing to Mr. Clinton -- Whitewater, fund raising, Monica Lewinsky, China espionage, etc.

Mr. Clinton can't afford the political beating he would take if he cashiered her. But Ms. Reno pays a price for her outsiderness. The president has all but excluded her from policy making.

Under the crony attorneys general, the Justice Department exercised vast influence over legal policy. Mr. Meese and Robert Kennedy, for example, shook up federal law enforcement. But the Clinton White House has husbanded crime policy to itself, unwilling to entrust it to Ms. Reno.

This has made her an attorney general without measurable accomplishment in law enforcement or prosecution. Crime has plummeted, but she gets no credit.

Ms. Reno brought an ambitious, liberal agenda to Justice. She favored alternative punishments, longed to help troubled kids, worried about Draconian anti-immigration policy and disliked the death penalty, mandatory minimum sentences and the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. But Mr. Clinton and the Republican Congress ignored her.

Instead, her Justice Department has had to enforce an expanded federal death penalty, throw more people in federal prison for longer sentences, punish juvenile criminals more harshly, support mandatory minimums and the crack/powder disparity, and double the Border Patrol.

Ms. Reno opposed some of these policies internally but had too little influence to stop them. Which brings us to the Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas, where the symbolism and substance of Ms. Reno collide most alarmingly. Ms. Reno's deserved reputation for integrity is merely negative. She has not achieved anything magnificent. Her integrity has simply prevented her from corrupting the process.

She has not conducted any powerful investigations, but she has had the wisdom not to block others from conducting them. The Waco mess, however, has exposed the limits of mere honor. Most reports suggest FBI agents repeatedly lied to Ms. Reno, and she believed them.

In this case, she, not an independent counsel, supervised the operation and the probes, and she settled for cursory answers. It's easy to call this gullibility and incompetence, and that's exactly what Republicans are doing: A chorus on the right, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Larry Klayman, is demanding her resignation.

(It's worth noting, however, that the FBI similarly deceived Republican attorney generals over the Ruby Ridge fiasco. Attorneys general have an impossible relationship with the FBI: They nominally supervise the bureau and hence are held responsible for its misbehavior, but the FBI behaves like an autonomous agency.)

An attorney general who exerted more control over the department and the bureau, who was a better head-knocker, and who had the full support of the White House might have dragged the truth out of the FBI years ago, as Ms. Reno did not and could not. But no such attorney general could have survived the Clinton scandals, much less survived them with her own reputation -- and her department's -- intact.

David Plotz is Washington bureau chief of Slate magazine, in which this first appeared. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 09/29/99

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