. . . Who needs enemies?

Mona Charen

June 17, 1993|By Mona Charen

IT IS far, far worse to be President Bill Clinton's friend than to be his enemy.

Ask Zoe Baird, or Kimba Wood, or Lani Guinier, or Bruce Babbitt, or Stephen Breyer, or, alternatively, Bob Dole. Of that list, only Senator Dole is looking and sounding like a winner, the kind of man who dives into his breakfast each morning with gusto.

But for the president's friends, the prospect of nomination to high office has been transformed from what it ought to be -- a signal honor -- into something approaching humiliation.

Today, if the phone rings and it's the president informing you that you're being considered for a post, your first inclination might be to fear for your reputation. Certainly Zoe Baird is worse off than she was before (perhaps deservedly). So is Kimba Wood (undeservedly). Lani Guinier has become a synonym for academic leftism, and poor Judge Breyer will always be remembered as the man whose bicycle hit a pothole called Social Security taxes.

The president invites these troubles with his habit of public thumb-sucking. His agony over every decision is starting to make Mario Cuomo look swift and decisive by contrast. And if the fact that he is making himself look bad isn't sufficient motivation for the president to change, he might at least consider the effect his nail-biting is having on his friends.

The selection of Appeals Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a nominee for the Supreme Court seems like such a natural for a Democratic president that the question arises: Why was this so difficult?

The president actually gave as his excuse for dawdling that he was spending so much time in the last few days on Somalia. Somalia!

Here's a free hint for President Clinton: Stop telling us how much time you're devoting to this or that issue. You're the president of the United States now. You're not in high school. There are no points for effort. Your work habits are your own affair.

Perhaps one reason Mr. Clinton wants us to know how diligently he's working is because he has a talent for making easy decisions into hard ones. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a mainstream liberal judge, appointed by Jimmy Carter. Why wasn't she first on Mr. Clinton's list?

For a time, during the early 1980s, her role on the D.C. Court of Appeals was that of a swing vote. The circuit had five judges appointed by Presidents Nixon and Reagan and five appointed by Jimmy Carter.

There was, in the words of one former law clerk on that court, "a battle for Ginsburg's soul." The liberals won. In the latter part of the 1980s, she voted consistently with the Carter group.

Judge Ginsburg has been called the "Thurgood Marshall" of women's legal rights because she achieved something called "intermediate scrutiny" of laws that treat or affect men and women differently. In practice, intermediate scrutiny means states must have an awfully good reason to make distinctions between the sexes -- otherwise the courts will strike down the law as unconstitutional.

Judge Ginsburg is reputed to be extremely bright, personable, funny and engaging. In those respects -- though not in philosophy -- the justice she most resembles is Antonin Scalia.

But it is a mark of the depressing politics of our age -- a politics President Clinton practices with rigid earnestness -- that Judge Ginsburg's first selling points were probably her gender and religion (Jewish) rather than her mind and spirit.

Here is why Mr. Clinton hesitated to name Judge Ginsburg straight away. She once wrote an article criticizing the reasoning of the Roe vs. Wade decision. It's not that she disagrees with the outcome, merely with the legal rationale. Still, that was enough to ignite White House fears of a feminist donnybrook. And so her resume was quietly moved to the middle of the pile.

It was only when Secretary Babbitt's friends in the environmental movement clamored that they couldn't live without him, and Judge Breyer revealed that he hadn't paid Social Security taxes for an 80-year-old, once-a-week employee, that the president seems to have decided to go with Judge Ginsburg.

By such trivial criteria are the great decisions of the Clinton administration made.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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