The Next Attorney General

December 26, 1992

Gov. Bill Clinton says he wants Zoe Baird to "reinvigorate" the Justice Department and "restore morale." It needs that treatment. Justice has never quite regained its balance after the ethical controversies under Attorney General Edwin Meese.

Richard Thornburgh replaced Mr. Meese in 1988, and his stewardship of the department was marked by several decisions that seemed related to his own political ambitions. He left the department to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania -- and lost in a stunning upset that was in part a repudiation of his tour at Justice. Under his successor, William Barr, the department has found itself embroiled in unseemly conflicts with its own FBI and the CIA.

Ms. Baird may be just the right person to change things. She is well thought of by those in the legal community who have dealt with her -- and in the political and governmental communities, though her time there was brief. She was on the White House staff of Jimmy Carter at age 28, having moved there from the Justice Department's own internal "law firm," the Office of Legal Counsel. Then a stint as a very young partner at a very large and prestigious law firm. Then she became General Electric's top lawyer at 34, then senior vice president and general counsel at Aetna Life & Casualty Co. at 38. She's only 40 now, young by traditional standards, but judging by her career history not too young for the job.

President-elect Clinton took notice of the fact that Ms. Baird would be the first woman ever to serve as attorney general. Some observers of the process even charge that the job was a quota plum for women from the start. We hope not, but even if so, we suspect her sex will be less significant in her approach to the job than something else that is unique -- at least in our memory -- about her. She would be the first attorney general we can recall who came to the top legal job from a big corporation. In the past, the choice has been from government, academia or law firms.

Ms. Baird may be a Democrat, and a liberal one, but she is no bomb thrower. Whatever such ideas she may have picked up at the University of California at Berkeley, she surely shed managing the legal departments of two very large business entities. There aren't any radicals in the executive suites at insurance giants like Aetna.

At Aetna, Ms. Baird has overseen a restructuring of the legal department that coincided with the insurance company's general reorganization. That much change the Justice Department does not need, but it needs some. On paper, at least, Ms. Baird seems to be a good choice to achieve it.

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