WHEN asked if he would have done anything different in his search for an attorney general, President Clinton replied: "Oh, I would have called Janet Reno on November the 5th."
Would that he had. He would have avoided two distractions. And given the Senate's initial fast-track confirmation process, the nation could be four weeks closer to seeing the restoration of morale and credibility to a Justice Department that needs both.
In many ways, the agency's emphasis has shifted during the last 12 years to focus more on law enforcement than on seeking justice for all Americans - two concepts not necessarily synonymous. That period saw a marked emphasis on a war on drugs, for example, while the civil rights division languished.
Meanwhile, the agency has been the battlefield for highly publicized charges and countercharges between former Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director William Sessions. And it has been criticized for its handling of probes into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and into the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro's alleged part in bankrolling Saddam Hussein's military buildup.
Into this maelstrom will step Ms. Reno, if she is confirmed. Many elements of her background are appealing. She is familiar with how justice issues look from a local vantage point. Those who have worked with her cite her fairness and integrity. She has a personal aversion to the death penalty, although as a prosecutor she has recommended it where the law called for it. Under her tenure as state attorney for Dade County, her office aggressively pursued those who failed to pay child support. She has been a
strong advocate for juvenile-justice reform. An elected official, she has political savvy and by many accounts has effectively administered an agency that local observers say has been chronically underfunded. Above all, she is said to have as deep a commitment to addressing the problems that contribute to crime as she does to enforcing the law.
Her weak spot, critics say, is a lack of aggressiveness in prosecuting corruption. She has replied that she turned those cases over to the federal prosecutors because the rules governing disclosure of evidence to defendants are tougher at the federal level; hence it was easier to get convictions.
This is an area that the Senate Judiciary Committee should focus on during Reno's confirmation hearings: One of the criticisms leveled at the Justice Department is that it throttled back on its BNL probe to avoid highlighting any Bush administration role in arming Saddam.