Bad Chemistry at Justice

January 28, 1994

Give Philip Heymann and Janet Reno credit for one thing: By Washington standards they appear to have been amazingly forthright about the decision for him to leave the Justice Department as her highest-ranking assistant. It was clear in his official letter to President Clinton and in what Attorney General Reno and Deputy Attorney General Heymann said in a press conference yesterday that this was a resignation-before-dismissal.

His answer to one reporter summed up what we assume to be the explanation for Ms. Reno's desire to dismiss Mr. Heymann:

Q. Was it just differences in personality?

A. Yeah. Personality, chemistry.

We assume this is the true explanation because you never know in Washington till the memoirs are published. But it makes sense. He is the brainy Ivy League professor, she is the tough county prosecutor. It sounds like an old Tracy-Hepburn movie -- with role reversal. In cases like that, only good chemistry can save the day.

It is unfortunate this has to happen at the Justice Department, which has been bedeviled and demoralized by problems at the top for a dozen years now, with charges of politics, cronyism, corruption and internal feuding interferring with its mission and routine operations.

With Mr. Heymann a lame duck, and Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell more or less a ruptured duck (because of his involvement with some of the Whitewater goings-on in Arkansas being probed by the independent counsel) and with the important post of assistant attorney general for civil rights still vacant for a second year -- well, the Justice Department can hardly be said to be operating with great efficiency.

Some do not assume only bad chemistry produced the Heymann decision. Some of Ms. Reno's critics believe it is a reflection on her executive skills, and/or an indication of the White House's disappointment with her. The White House has not made it easy for the attorney general. Recently, she went out on a limb in insisting that appointing an independent counsel would be wrong, and the White House sawed off the limb. Earlier she was apparently left out of the loop when the White House staff was bungling the travel office and Vincent Foster suicide investigations.

Mr. Heymann's successor has to be confirmed by the Senate. The Judiciary Committee ought to use the confirmation process or its general oversight responsibility to try to find out if there is more bad chemistry at the department than just that between two personalities.

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