Guinier leaves with parting shot Clinton accused of misreading her views on race

June 05, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Spurned Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier chose yesterday not to depart quietly and instead gave President Clinton a pointed lecture for what he had done and about what he must now do.

Seldom has a scuttled nominee spoken up so vividly before leaving town. Ms. Guinier, her chances to be the government's ** top civil rights enforcer ended by the president the night before, politely but clearly retorted yesterday.

She accused the president of removing her on the basis of a misreading of her views on race and politics -- essentially the same accusation that Mr. Clinton had leveled angrily at her strongest critics.

And the 43-year-old Philadelphia law professor also instructed the president on his obligation to enforce the civil rights laws, saying he needs "action, not words" to show "real presidential leadership" toward healing racial divisions.

She also made it clear, during her 16-minute farewell news conference, that she had been pushed and had not quit.

Meanwhile, the pounding criticism of the president for casting aside Ms. Guinier's nomination continued for another full day from leaders in the black community, including Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Maryland Democrat who is head of the Congressional Black Caucus. The president called members of the Black Caucus and asked for a meeting on Tuesday, but the members said they wanted to meet among themselves first and asked for a later date.

Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met with leaders of civil rights and women's rights groups to try to start soothing the hurt feelings. "The president is sorry about this whole thing," said his spokesman, George Stephanopoulos.

Attorney General Janet Reno made the rounds of the television talk shows to try to push the withdrawal controversy into the background. Ms. Reno left the impression that she had not reacted as negatively as the president had to Ms. Guinier's academic writings.

As Ms. Guinier rose to have her final say on Washington's public stage, there was a good deal of "in your face" symbolism even before she began making her pointed or subtle criticisms of the president.

She did not do it on neutral ground; she did it in the same Justice Department conference room where, ordinarily, only top department officials go to meet reporters. Her associates asked for space for the news conference, and an aide to Ms. Reno granted it.

It was a bit like saying she belonged there -- especially because the site was combined with her remark that she had been denied "a job some people have said I have trained for all my life."

Jackson's presence

And joining her -- near the government podium and definitely within TV camera range -- was the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a frequent political needler of Mr. Clinton and one of Ms. Guinier's most aggressive defenders in recent days as her nomination moved toward a collapse.

After she had finished, she and Mr. Jackson walked out into a Justice Department hallway, and a clutch of department employees began applauding and shouting. One called out, "We're proud of you!"

Beyond the symbolism, what Ms. Guinier said constituted the most stinging retort to the president -- although all of it was stated with the utmost courtesy, often in subtle phrasing and sometimes with her voice softly choking with emotion.

If there is anything Mr. Clinton prides himself on as much as he does his skills as a politician, it is his knowledge of the law -- especially civil rights law. But Ms. Guinier implied that he had failed to catch the meaning of what she had written on that subject in legal periodicals.

The president had justified his decision to withdraw her name Thursday night by saying that he had at last read her writings closely and would not have picked her if he had known she had written those things. They were views, he said, that he could not defend.

A reporter asked Ms. Guinier point-blank: "Did the president misread your writings?"

Without hesitation, she said he had and linked him with the others who had assailed her academic speculations. This was her answer: "I think that the president and many others have misinterpreted my writings."

Compatible views

She also hinted that Mr. Clinton's views on civil rights and hers were not, in fact, as incompatible as his remarks might have indicated: "I think the president knows what I stand for, and I think the president agrees with what I stand for. And he has said that."

In something of a turnabout on the president, Ms. Guinier found in one of the president's own utterances a view that she seemed to use to press him about what he will do to promote racial healing -- even as she was saying that he believes in that goal.

She recalled that Mr. Clinton was still a candidate for the White House, he had been asked on television: "Is there one thing on which you would not compromise?" She said that "he answered, without flinching, 'Yes, racial equality.' "

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