The battle over Elian

Hearings: GOP leaders set a trap for themselves in flaying the proper use of authority.

April 27, 2000

ANYONE with Elian Gonzalez' well-being at heart must be pleased that he is with his father and baby half-brother at last, in seclusion on the Eastern Shore, joined by others near and dear.

Distant relatives in Miami, claiming possession of a political symbol, had denied him his father; kept him from school; prevented any hope of friends, and put him on public display, surrounded by noisy political demonstrators 24 hours a day. No one can pretend that was a healthy environment for a six-year-old who was alone in terror after his mother drowned.

Why Republican leaders of Congress want confrontational public hearings next week in hopes of bashing Attorney General Janet Reno is not easily discerned. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott can hardly expect political advantage from such a spectacle. He has not previously seemed a political masochist.

He knows that Ms. Reno went the last mile, had a warrant, had court-conferred discretion on placement of the boy. He knows that great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez refused to let Elian see his father, defied lawful authority and dared the attorney general to act.

Denunciations of her for not waiting longer are disingenuous. So are expressions of horror at the display of weapons. These critics know that threats were made. Whether guns were in the house and crowd when the Immigration and Naturalization Service task force struck is not known. It did not wait to find out.

Senator Lott also knows from opinion polls that the American public believes overwhelmingly that Elian belongs with his father while healing, and that federal authority was wrongly defied and rightly imposed. The people as polled do find fault with Attorney General Reno -- for delaying too long what had to be done.

While it is possible Republicans can use hearings to humiliate the Justice Department, the reverse is more likely. Ms. Reno may well emerge a more sympathetic figure.

That risks creating the image of a Republican Party that favors mob intimidation over the rule of law. It would do the Republican congressional and presidential campaigns a great disservice.

Presumably, Senator Lott knows what he is doing. One can only hope.

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