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Clinton's Apolitical Justice Department?

Reno Puff Pieces a Marked Contrast from Partisan Press Attacks on Republican Attorneys General

Attorney General Janet Reno may look like a partisan tool for refusing to appoint an independent counsel to investigate questionable White House fundraising. That reputation plagued Attorneys General in the Reagan-Bush years, but that's not the media approach to Reno. On the front page of the November 23 New York Times, reporters David Johnston and Deborah Sontag argued: "Even her severest Republican critics acknowledge that she possesses remarkable personal integrity and is not motivated by political ambition." Actually, her severest GOP critics want her to resign, but Republicans were not quoted anywhere in the article.

Johnston and Sontag suggested Reno "reads voraciously and penetrates to a level of minute detail" and complained Reno's "moderate" views on criminal justice are subsumed by Clinton's "more conservative" crime ideas. "Many Justice Department officials say Janet Reno, by failing to generate a platform of her own, ends up standing for nothing more than good government."

The Landmark Legal Foundation (at www.llf.org) has listed several events which seek to refute the rosy New York Times evaluation of Reno's mastery of legal detail and good-government agenda when it comes to the fundraising probe:

Reno assured the public Vice President Gore had not engaged in criminal conduct with his fundraising calls since he was raising "soft" money without examining records showing the DNC diverted some of the funds to "hard" money accounts.

Reno was the last to learn about the coffee tapes.

Early on, Reno stopped the FBI from asking White House and DNC officials, including Clinton and Gore, about their roles in the fundraising scandal.

Reno reportedly told Senators in a closed-door meeting she was unaware of Los Angeles businessman Ted Sioeng's contributions to the DNC and his possible links to China when in fact, she knew about them.

Surely past Republican Attorneys General such as Ed Meese would not have been allowed to bumble through an investigation of Reagan without a fusillade of harsh media criticism. While Meese asked for an independent counsel only two weeks into a preliminary investigation of Iran-Contra (perhaps partially in response to hours of immediate network specials on the scandal, something never seen in the Clinton years), the media treated him much more severely than Reno.

On April 24, 1988, ABC Sunday anchor Sam Donaldson passed on the latest word on the independent counsel James McKay's investigation of Meese (which ended with no indictments): "Oregon's Republican Senator Bob Packwood has been taken to task for saying embattled Attorney General Edwin Meese should be held to a higher standard than bank robbers. Packwood received a letter from a convicted bank robber, Raymond James, who's serving time in a Pennsylvania prison. Wrote James: 'I do not appreciate being categorized with Ed Meese. This is an affront to any self-respecting bank robber. We, too, have certain standards.'"

By contrast, none of Reno's missteps have caused the networks or news magazines to alter the portrait they've painted over the last five years of an Attorney General full of integrity and competence, and a Justice Department that isn't political, but simply stands for all the right (liberal) things, unlike the hated Reagan-Bush years:

In the November 23, 1992 Newsweek, Senior Writer David A. Kaplan wrote an article titled "No More Hacks or Cronies," which touted liberal hero

Robert Kennedy. Kaplan featured liberal Bill Weld, who worked in the Reagan Justice Department before becoming Governor of Massachusetts. Weld hung a picture of RFK on his wall, Kaplan noted favorably: "For Weld (a Republican), RFK was the model A.G. - committed to law, animated in temperament, and able to manage the mammoth bureaucracy." Kaplan noted that Ed Meese disapproved: "It figures." (See box on previous page.) In the Iran-Contra investigation, Kaplan complained, "Meese's department perfected the arts of obfuscation and foot-dragging." Kaplan urged: "Clinton, for a change, should pick an Attorney General who is above politics."

In the February 15, 1993 Time, Associate Editor Michael S. Serrill's article, headlined "Law and Disorder," charged: "In recent years the agency has been rife with controversy over allegedly lax investigations, secret political motives, cover-ups, and general malfeasance." Under Reagan and Bush, Serrill claimed, Democrats and Republicans alike saw Justice as "the most thoroughly politicized and ethically compromised department in the government."

Serrill also pointed the finger at Meese, who he said implemented the Reagan program "to roll back civil rights gains, crack down on criminal defendants and the rights they had been awarded by the courts, attack pornographers, and slow down enforcement of environmental laws." Serrill promoted the new plan for DOJ: "Transition officials have some clear ideas about reform. First, they want to root out the 'true believers' from the Reagan-Bush years."

On April 12, 1993, CNN "Special Assignment" reporter Ken Bode (now with PBS) swung into action: "For the last decade, the Justice Department was an ideological warehouse for conservative thinkers. At the same time, Justice became a political arm of the White House." Bode echoed Time's litany of complaints: "The Reagan-Bush agenda included a hard line on abortion, a rollback on civil rights - trying to restore tax credits for segregated schools, for example - also attempts to minimize affirmative action requirements." Bode allowed liberal Ralph Neas to attack the GOP without rebuttal.

Bode praised the new President's judicial record: "Clinton's first public office was Attorney General of Arkansas. He was aggressive, high-profile, populist...If the Justice Department will reflect President Clinton's policies, expect the new Attorney General to be much stronger on civil rights enforcement, pay attention to environmental laws, support the rights of children, and a continued emphasis on crime and public safety." Bode did note Reno's unprecedented decision to fire all 93 U.S. Attorneys "has become a highly visible test of how political the Justice Department will be under Bill Clinton and Janet Reno." But Bode let Reno declare herself non-political in three soundbites - while GOP officials never appeared in the story.

Time celebrated Reno without any unfortunate references to fired U.S. attorneys. On May 10, 1993, Stanley Cloud's profile leaned heavily on stories of her mother's alligator-wrestling and Reno's contrasting desire "to throw parties where guests drink wine and read Shakespeare." Cloud marked Reno's dressing down Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) in a hearing on Waco as the arrival of a "folk hero." (See box.)

Just two months later, Reno was the cover girl of the July 12, 1993 Time, with a Nancy Gibbs article titled "Truth, Justice, and the Reno Way." Gibbs cooed: "Reno is pure oxygen in a city with thin air, and she has gone to its head. Senators say she is the most impressive Cabinet member by far; the New York Times called her a 'prized asset'; when fans surround the table where she's eating dinner with Barbra Streisand, it is Reno's autograph they want." Gibbs called her a liberal, but also concluded: "Her heart is big but her solutions are sound; she cares more for results than for labels, for ideas over ideology."

When asked last week on Inside Politics if Reno's decision could cause a backlash, CNN's Bill Schneider replied: "I don't think the voters see Janet Reno as anybody's crony." If that's true, it's a tribute to the media's campaign to promote Reno's integrity, a stark contrast to the "sleaze factor" drumbeat during GOP administrations. - Tim Graham