Inside-the-Beltway Nominee

October 18, 1991

In nominating William Barr as attorney general, President Bush called him "a thorough professional." No doubt, but he is also -- on paper -- the least qualified nominee for attorney general, the nation's premier lawyer, since Ramsey Clark and Robert Kennedy.

Mr. Barr, who has been acting attorney general for two months, is only 41 years old, and his legal background is skimpy by any usual standards. He has only been a lawyer for 13 years, and he only practiced law with a private firm for four years. The rest of his career was spent at the Central Intelligence Agency, in the White House and at the Justice Department. We suspect Mr. Barr was chosen less for his legal professionalism than for his bureaucratic skills, his sense of Washington, his impeccable but non-political conservatism, especially regarding crime, and his low profile. The Judiciary Committee and the Senate are not likely to pick a fight with him.

In a strange, significant, ironic way, Mr. Barr is a perfect Bush selection. He is a Washington careerist -- like Clarence Thomas and Robert Gates. Mr. Bush also picked a vice president who has been in Washington since 1977. His secretary of State has been there since 1981, his secretary of Defense since 1968. The departments of agriculture, energy, housing, interior, labor and veterans affairs are also headed by old Washington hands. The last has been on the federal payroll since 1959. And, of course, Mr. Bush is an old Washington hand himself. He has been in and out of Washington (mostly in) holding down a succession of government positions since 1967.

Over-dependency on the inside-the-beltway crowd would deserve criticism in any administration. This is a big country, and its variety ought to be represented in the executive branch at the policy-making level. Mr. Bush doubly deserves criticism. He continually uses the culture of federal Washington as a whipping boy. Last year in Omaha, for example, the president said, "Oh, how nice it is to be out where the real people are, outside of Washington, D.C.!" Nebraskans thought it was bureaucrats and Democrats in Congress he was fleeing, but maybe it was his own cabinet.

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