WASHINGTON — PERHAPS the most striking aspect of ``Eldie'' Acheson's rise to a high-level position in the Clinton administration is not that she got there largely on her own. Rather, it's that she doesn't make a big deal of the fact. Sure, it helped that she was a Wellesley College classmate of Hillary Rodham Clinton. That put her ``on the Clintons' radar screen,'' she acknowledges.
But Ms. Acheson and the first lady are hardly buddies: After graduating in 1969, they crossed paths only at occasional alumnae events.
And it's just a historical curiosity that Eleanor Dean Acheson is the granddaughter and namesake of one of America's most renowned secretaries of state, one of the post-World War II giants who erected the walls of containment around the Soviet Union.
Genealogy won't get you a presidential appointment or Senate confirmation. Ms. Acheson became an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department through the usual route - by dint of ability, experience, and hard work for the president's election. Her position may be listed in the so-called Plum Book of top government jobs, but no one simply plucked the plum and handed it to her.
She should be, and probably is, justifiably proud of that fact. In an interview in her office, however, she makes no special pitch to a reporter about meritocracy, and she doesn't bristle when he brings up either the FOH (friend of Hillary) factor or her famous name.
As she speaks appreciatively both of the first family and her own family, Acheson seems secure in the sense that she earned the responsibilities that have been entrusted to her. Bulging portfolio of duties
Acheson, who reports to Attorney General Janet Reno, directs the Justice Department's office of policy development. Her primary responsibility is to screen candidates for federal judgeships and United States attorney posts.
As the name of the office implies, though, she also carries a bulging portfolio of other duties relating to the formulation of government policy in a range of legal areas. In that role, she often participates on interagency task forces with representatives from the White House and other departments.
Before joining the Clinton transition team soon after the election last year, Acheson spent nearly 19 years as a trial lawyer at Ropes & Gray, a blue-chip Boston law firm. She graduated from the George Washington University Law School in Washington in 1973 and then clerked for a federal judge in Maine for a year.
Public service is a family tradition. Besides her grandfather's service in the State Department in the 1940s and early '50s, Acheson's father was the US attorney in Washington in the 1960s and her mother worked at the US Information Agency.
Growing up in Washington, Acheson saw a good deal of her grandfather, the statesman, lawyer, and writer Dean Acheson. She describes weekends at Harewood Farm, her grandparents' weekend getaway in Maryland, and she joined her grandparents several times on their annual winter retreat to Antigua.
``He was a wonderful grandfather,'' she says, ``very attentive, very generous, and genuinely interested in my friends and people I would bring to the farm.... He was tremendously interested in things, so that you could have conversations with him about almost anything.''
In his new book about the Acheson family (see review, left), Ms. Acheson's father, David, writes that Dean Acheson ``encouraged his granddaughter Eleanor's decision to go to law school, and enjoyed discussing with her issues of the day to which she applied a keen and critical mind.'')
Dean Acheson, who died in 1971, didn't see his granddaughter's later success in law. But Ms. Acheson recently arranged for her 98-year-old grandmother to have lunch with Attorney General Reno.
While she performs a variety of duties, Eldie Acheson spends much of her time poring over job applications and interviewing candidates to be judges and US attorneys.
However able incumbent US attorneys may be, new presidents like to appoint their own people for the 93 posts, and Bill Clinton is no exception. The turnover is nearly complete, Acheson says. But more than 100 vacancies on federal trial and appeals courts remain to be filled. Disavowal of liberal litmus test
A perennial issue throughout the Reagan and Bush years was whether those Republican administrations were applying a conservative ``litmus test'' to judicial nominees. With a Democrat now in the White House, some conservatives assert that Acheson's ``job is to put liberal judges on courts,'' she says.
Acheson denies the charge. Asked what the administration is looking for in judges, she uses terms such as ``intellectual interest and grasp,'' ``actively want to serve,'' ``challenged by issues of federal law,'' ``ready to roll up their sleeves and dive into tremendous case backlogs,'' ``good judicial temperament,'' and ``leave litigants, lawyers, and the public with the impression that they worked very hard to be fair.''
Acheson says the administration is having no difficulty reconciling this emphasis on judicial quality with its ``commitment to diversity'' of gender and race in judicial appointments.
``If there ever was a tension between excellence and diversity, there certainly isn't now,'' she says. ``The brightness, the experience, the dedication, the hard work that you see in all the judicial candidates are pretty uniform.''
Her disavowal of a liberal litmus test may not convince conservatives. And, Acheson notes, it won't sit well with some liberals, either. ``Some people may give me the hook after they read this article,'' she says wryly. ``They may say, `She's not doing what we thought she was doing.' ''