Clinton wasn't smooth in making high court pick ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 16, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Presidential campaigns are said by many to be dry runs for the presidency itself. That is, situations that arise in campaigns often parallel those a president faces, so campaigns provide an opportunity to test approaches and personnel.

One of Bill Clinton's smoothest and most successful operations as a candidate last year was his selection of then Sen. Al Gore as his running mate. Clinton, mindful of the manner in which some other candidates had botched their selections by conducting their searches in the glare of the public spotlight, went the other way. It was an example he failed to follow in filling the first vacancy available to him on the Supreme Court.

When Clinton picked Gore, he took great pains to low-ball the process. The Tennessee senator and each of the others on his short list was spirited into his presence for a personal interview, with staff going to considerable lengths to keep secret the interviews and the prospective choices.

Although there was the usual speculation, those on the list were spared the discomfort of enduring an ordeal of public waiting, and Clinton himself was spared the charges of indecisiveness that were rained on him in approaching his eventual Supreme Court selection of Judge Ruth Ginsburg.

Instead, by making his agonizing over the choice obvious, the president invited more criticism of his style and readiness for the presidency, at precisely the time he needs to convey a firm sense that he is in command of all aspects of his job.

After weeks of cogitating, the floating of the name of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was an invitation to complaints from environmentalists and conservationists happy with Babbitt just where he is. Then summoning Judge Stephen Breyer to the White House for a long personal interview and keeping him in town on hold subjected the judge to that very discomfort he avoided inflicting on his vice-presidential prospects a year ago.

It is not hard to see why the president was so deliberate in making his Supreme Court choice. He had been batting like a a good-field, no-hit shortstop in the appointments league. His strikeouts in two attorney general picks and lately of Lani Guinier for head of Justice's Civil Rights Division made him very tentative at the plate.

Beyond that, Clinton is well aware of the long-term significance of any Supreme Court selection, especially for a moderate Democrat at a time of real or perceived conservative dominance of the court. So all due deliberation certainly was warranted, but why so public?

A year ago, in going about the choice of a running mate, Clinton made a point not only of secrecy but also of dignity in dealing with the individuals he was considering.

Like the three Republican nominees before him, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Clinton deplored the public dance to which Democratic prospects were subjected by Jimmy Carter in 1976, Walter Mondale in 1984 and, to a lesser degree, Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Democratic politicians remember sadly George McGovern's vice-presidential selection fiasco in 1972, wherein first choice Tom Eagleton was forced off the ticket and McGovern had to shop the nomination around before Sargent Shriver finally accepted.

The episode not only was embarrassing but also politically destructive, and Clinton was going to have none of that.

Choosing a Supreme Court nominee ought to be easier to keep under wraps than picking a running mate, simply because judges and other most likely court prospects are not prominent public figures in the way politicians are.

Babbitt, to be sure, was an exception and mention of him drew an immediate public spotlight.

Because Clinton has been snake-bitten in his appointments in the legal realm, he clearly felt obliged to worry this one to death until finally picking Ginsburg.

The most unfortunate aspect of all this from Clinton's point of view is that he was the first Democrat in nearly three decades to have a Supreme Court choice and he had to think importantly of its impact on his own political situation -- his show of temper when asked about it notwithstanding.

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