Rumblings about Reno continue to reverberate



WASHINGTON -- There was a time not too long ago when the office of attorney general was unabashedly a place for the president's chief political adviser or even political crony to hang his hat. Ronald Reagan had William French Smith and Ed Meese; Richard Nixon had John Mitchell; John Kennedy had his brother Robert, and so on.

But times have changed, to the point that when the current attorney general, Janet Reno, was asked the other day whether she had any views on the appropriateness of President Clinton making a political trip to Chicago to appear with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, under investigation by her Justice Department, she said, merely, "Yes."

Reno's repeated refusal to comment further, nor to say whether she had discussed the matter with the White House, left the clear implication that she didn't think it was such a hot idea. Reno was neither a political adviser nor a political crony when Clinton chose her for the job, ending a fiasco that saw two previous choices shot down on what came to be known as the nanny problem. But it wouldn't have taken much political savvy for Reno simply to have turned the question aside without comment.

The incident would be unimportant if it did not touch on a growing sense in Washington that Reno, originally touted as the surprise star of the Clinton Cabinet at least in part for taking the heat from the new president after the Branch Davidians shootout in Waco, has become a bit of a loose cannon.

That view took on wider currency recently in the sudden resignation of her top deputy, Philip Heymann, over differences in how the Justice Department should be run. There have been rumblings as well about the very personal role Reno has played around the country as an administration spokeswoman while the Justice Department has had serious internal organizational problems, with a number of key posts still unfilled. One reason Heymann left, it has been suggested, is that she dumped so much in his lap that he couldn't function as point man on key projects assigned to him.

Of late, she has increasingly become a target of Republican sniping. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, questioning the administration's commitment as a crime-fighter, dismissed Reno as "a very sweet lady" who would be better off at the Department of Health and Human Services. Her backing and filling on whether to appoint a special investigator in the Whitewater case, until public pressure forced Clinton to step in, led Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole to accuse her of collaborating with the White House to keep details of the investigation private.

Attacks from Republican quarters are not, after all, surprising. Shortly after she took office last year, Republicans in Congress unloaded on her for ordering the resignations of all federal attorneys held over from the Bush administration.

In the Branch Davidians episode, although she was widely praised for accepting responsibility for the FBI attack on the compound that triggered its burning, one Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, called her decision "a profound disgrace to law enforcement" and said he was not going to "rationalize the innocent deaths of two dozen children."

Reno said at the time of the raid that she had acted after FBI reports that "babies were being beaten," reports later questioned. Although a Justice Department review absolved the FBI and Reno of fault, one outside psychiatrist on the panel questioned "why a person whose primary concern was the safety of the children would agree to the FBI's plan" to end the standoff.

Nevertheless, Reno emerged from that episode as a heroine for making a tough call and owning up to it. Her position has seemed further insulated by the nature of her appointment as the first woman attorney general -- after two embarrassing misfires in two other female nominations .

Where other presidents have looked upon the position as a political plum or center of political influence, Clinton saw it as a place to demonstrate his commitment to women. If Reno's performance is less than pleasing at the White House now, it will be hard politically to send her packing now.

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