A Man for Attorney General?

February 09, 1993

There is an old saying to the effect that if a cat jumps on a hot stove it will never do that again -- or jump on a cold one, either. President Clinton behaved like that last week when he refused to nominate his choice for attorney general, Judge Kimba Wood, because he found out she had once hired a domestic worker who was in the country illegally. Having been burned on the illegal alien issue before in the case of Zoe Baird, the president shied away -- even though the metaphorical stove in the Wood case was cold.

Judge Wood herself broke no laws regarding employment, and she made Social Security payments on her domestic aide's behalf. Ms. Baird did break the law in both those areas. Sen. Alan Simpson, the Wyoming Republican who wrote the immigration law and who opposed Ms. Baird, said of Judge Wood, "This woman really did everything required and did it beautifully."

A number of critics of the way President Clinton handled Judge Wood have accused his administration of having a double standard. Male nominees to the cabinet have not been held to the same standard as Zoe Baird. That seems true in Secretary Ron Brown's case, but the Commerce Department is not the Justice Department. The attorney general simply cannot have been a lawbreaker. One male candidate for the top job at Justice lost out because of a nanny problem.

The real double-standard problem in this affair is that the president made the job an affirmative action hire. The number of women the right age and right experience is considerably smaller than the number of men. That is because women did not start entering law schools in large numbers until about 20 years ago. Then for the past 12 years steps up the federal ladder such as assistant attorney generalships, legal counsel to departments, agencies and the White House, judgeships and so forth have been unavailable to most Democrats. That greatly increased the likelihood that the Clinton nominee, if she had to be a woman, would be a person of less than compelling qualifications.

There is now an unfortunate and widespread impression in the Justice Department and in the nation as a whole that having a woman attorney general is more important to the White House than having an outstanding attorney general. It is true that the Justice Department in the past 12 years has had AGs with the traditional qualification that they knew their presidents well.

Yet the Justice Department is a wreck. And that's hardly because the last four AGs had the backgrounds they had. It is because these four men were not good choices. The department needs a leader who can restore its reputation and its morale. That requires someone of a stature that commands respect in the nation, in the department and in the White House. There may be a woman who fits that bill, but if there isn't, or if such a person is not available, the president should not hesitate to nominate a man.

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