Thornburgh's Reputation Buffeted

While conservatives are pleased with attorney general, others say he is politically clumsy. A ROUGH RIDE

ATTORNEY General Dick Thornburgh is still one of the members of the Bush Cabinet considered ``national material'' - a potential presidential candidate or Supreme Court justice. But his reputation has taken a rough ride through his first 18 months in office.

The former governor of Pennsylvania arrived in town to take over for Edwin Meese during the last months of the Reagan years.

His image was of a very bright and competent, squeaky clean, ruthlessly efficient former prosecutor of only moderately conservative philosophy.

By all accounts, he has proved ruthlessly efficient.

Yet Washington hands view him as unexpectedly clumsy. ``He has not proven to be as savvy in the ways of Washington, or at least as sensitive to the ways of Washington, as his experience would have indicated,'' notes Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Mr. Thornburgh has had uneven and abrasive relations with Congress. He has also carried out the most systematic confrontation with the press of any top Bush administration official.

On one of the highest profile efforts of the Bush administration - the war on drugs - Thornburgh has been largely eclipsed by the aggressive and media-savvy drug policy director, William Bennett.

One group has been unexpectedly pleased with the attorney general: conservative activists. Outfits such as the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) that review his recommendation for federal judgeships and read Justice Department briefs are giving him the thumbs-up in conservative circles.

``I didn't expect him to be as conservative as he is,'' says Richard Samp, WLF's chief counsel.

One theory, offered by another AEI analyst, William Schneider, is that an ambitious Thornburgh is taking a leaf from the book of George Bush.

Thornburgh, Mr. Schneider suggests, is working to allay the suspicions of the Republican right, just as Bush did for much of his vice presidency.

``I think he wants to be a player. In the national Republican Party, to be a player you have to be acceptable to the conservatives,'' Schneider says.

Whether that is Thornburgh's motive or not it is working, says David Keene of the American Conservative Union.

As head of the Justice Department, Thornburgh is at the crossroads of the most loaded ideological issues in politics, from abortion to affirmative action.

Under Mr. Meese, the Justice Department took these issues on with relish for combat over principle. Whether for prayer in schools or against racial quotas, Meese went, as Mr. Ornstein puts it, ``crashing around in the political thicket.''

Thornburgh has been smoother and more judicious. He has stumbled both to his left and right but has largely recovered.

He personally recommended two Justice appointments that went down in flames.

His choice of Robert Fiske Jr. as deputy attorney general outraged conservatives, who suspected Mr. Fiske was soft on abortion. President Bush withdrew the nomination.

He also chose William Lucas, a black Republican, as assistant attorney general for civil rights and lost the Senate confirmation battle to liberal opposition and poor preparation.

On civil rights, Georgetown University law professor Robert Drinan sees ``the same old heresy'' as under Meese. But Father Drinan credits Thornburgh's Justice Department for aggressively supporting antidiscrimination law for the disabled.

As Pennsylvania governor, Thornburgh eliminated 15,000 government jobs. He has brought the same lean-and-mean, corporate style to the Justice Department.

Many are willing to withhold judgment on his management style. If many in Congress and in Justice were upset over his reorganizations of the bureacracy, outsiders have found them sensible efficiencies.

But some believe his most serious political difficulties will come from his posture toward the press.

He cut down his press office from 10 persons to four, and he has come down hard throughout Justice and its agencies against anyone but the shrunken public affairs staff talking to reporters.

To show he is serious, he launched a grand jury investigation to find the source of a leak about an ongoing investigation.

Thornburgh explains that under Meese, the management of press contact had slipped, and perhaps half a dozen investigations may have been compromised by leaks.

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