Skirting questions about the scandal enveloping President Clinton, her former classmate, Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier said yesterday the country should focus more on the public actions of elected officials instead of scrutinizing their private lives.
She added that she is "skeptical about the life of the independent counsel" position now occupied by Kenneth W. Starr.
The statements came in an interview after Guinier spoke at a downtown Baltimore breakfast attended by nearly 800 and sponsored by the Community Relations Commission, a city agency that deals with civil rights and discrimination complaints.
Guinier, 48, who has written and spoken extensively on racial issues, gained notoriety as Clinton's embattled 1993 nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights division. Clinton, who attended Yale Law School with Guinier, abruptly withdrew her nomination after criticism mounted that her ideas about empowering minority voters were "extreme," and critics called her the "Quota Queen."
But, five years after that very public slight, the former University of Pennsylvania law professor earlier this year accepted a tenured position at Harvard's law school, making her the school's first black woman in such a post.
Guinier's rebound was underscored yesterday as the audience at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, which included Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, City Council members and local judges, gave her a standing ovation as she took the podium.
Asked privately if she could have predicted Clinton's current problems based on his handling of her nomination, Guinier said, "I'm not into predicting -- I'm not the Delphic Oracle -- but I think there are many important lessons to be learned from the Clinton presidency that we have overlooked or ignored."
As an example of what she characterized as the president's flawed approach to policy issues, she highlighted Clinton's failure to weigh in on California's anti-affirmative action bill, Proposition 209. During his frequent trips there in 1994 while seeking re-election, he decried racism in general but did not directly address the bill, she said.
"He emphasized the short-term principle -- in this case, his own re-election -- over the long-term principle," Guinier said.
In her speech, Guinier said society's spotty treatment of minorities and women should be viewed as a litmus test for the state of the nation.
"It should be alerting the rest of us to the toxic atmosphere that is polluting the air and polluting society," said Guinier.
In Baltimore, race relations have improved in recent years but "progress is slow," said Alvin O. Gillard, director of the Community Relations Commission.
"The most important thing she said from my perspective was stressing the importance of confronting the problems we face in the city and the nation in an inclusive way," he said. "We've got to try to bring as many folks to the table as possible to find solutions."
Said Schmoke, "There are pluses and minuses [regarding race relations in Baltimore]. It is still one of the most residentially segregated cities in the country, and that hasn't changed much since the 1950s. But I do see movement in the workplace and in the faith community."