Two months too late, Richard L. Thornburgh has resigned as attorney general to run for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania. It is two months late because he let his intentions be known in June, yet remained in his sensitive post until it suited his political purposes to begin an active campaign.
As was predictable, this insensitivity to the need for justice administered without any appearance of a conflicting personal political interest stained the reputations of Mr. Thornburgh and the department. He opposed a federal judge trying to deal with mob violence in Wichita, apparently to make political hay with supporters of the mob, an anti-abortion group so radical that even President Bush refused to meet with its leader. Mr. Thornburgh compounded his error by offering an ingenuous explanation for his action.
Justice and politics are not a good mix. That probably explains why the ambitious Mr. Thornburgh never lived up to his potential as attorney general. He did a good job overall, especially compared to his predecessor, Edwin Meese, but with his background in law enforcement and his roots in the soil of the moderate section of the Republican garden, he could have done better.
Some of the names being suggested as his replacement are so conservative that moderates and liberals may become nostalgic for Mr. Thornburgh's tenure one of these days. For example, White House counsel C. Boyden Gray and Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones. Surely President Bush does not still feel the need to appease his party's right wing to the point that he must make an ideological appointment. Indeed, he should feel the need to send a signal to the many moderates and some liberals among independents and Democrats who are leaning his way as 1992 approaches.
As for the Pennsylvania race, he is a solid favorite over the Democrat recently appointed to fill the vacancy created by Sen. John Heinz's death, Harris Wofford. Since Senator Wofford is so inexperienced, the campaign will probably turn not on his credentials but on Mr. Thornburgh's -- especially his three years as attorney general. It would be a great irony if the politics of his administration of justice brought him down.