Should Mr. Smith go to Washington?

President-elect Reagan's nomination of William French Smith to be attorney general does not seem to have caused any controversy. But the nomination ought to provoke some serious questions from the US Senate.

With all the highly qualified conservatives available for this position, one cannot help but wonder why Mr. Reagan chose Mr. Smith.

William French Smith is a Boston-bred aristocrat who moved West and disappeared into the wealth and anonymity of a large Los Angeles law firm. He is a creature of, and for, Ronald Reagan. He is Reagan's personal lawyer, manages his business affairs, and has invested his own money in projects with Reagan. He is one of Reagan's oldest and closest advisers, one of the men who was in on the ground floor when a group of California businessmen persuaded Reagan to run for governor in 1966. When Reagan wanted to crack down in California colleges in the tumultuous 1960s, the governor appointed his friend William French Smith to the Board of Regents, and Smith became chairman. At every Republican national convention where Reagan has been a factor until this year, Smith has been either chairman or vice-chairman of the California delegation.

The biggest question raised about the Smith nomination will be this: Should a close personal friend of the president -- indeed, the president's one-time personal lawyer -- be the chief law enforcement officer of the country?

In the aftermath of Watergate, there seemed to be a consensus for a nonpolitical attorney general, someone who could keep the White House at arm's length. President Ford's attorney general Edward Levi fit that description. President Carter's first attorney general, Griffin Bell, did not. Bell was a friend of Carter's. But he had been a federal judge, and he turned out to have a strong commitment to keeping politics out of the Justice Department. It must also be noted that Bell was not nearly as close personally to Carter as is Smith , and Bell spent 14 years on the bench dealing with issues of federal law. There are those, like former Attorney General Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach, who believe that an attorney general can do better at fending off politics in the Justice Department if he has the personal confidence and friendship of the president.

An attorney general must be able to tall the president things that the president does not want to hear: No, this legislation that you want is not constitutional; please, stop having so-and-so to dinner because he's associated with the mob; fire that guy because he's a crook, and we're going to prove it; I know so-and-so helped get you the nomination, but we must indict him.

So the real questions about William French Smith are: What are his qualifications to be attorney general? Is his dedication to the law greater than his political dedication to Ronald Reagan? And what will his priorities be for the Justice Department?

Smith's partners describe him as a labor lawyer who represents management; but when I contacted a number of leading labor lawyers in Los Angeles, most of them had had no contact with Smith in the last decade. One lawyer who does deal with Smith is Albert Brundage, who represents several unions against companies that are represented by Smith. Brundage calls Smith "bright, fair," and he notes that Smith's firm, although it represents management, is not "a union-busting firm." He calls Smith "a man you can deal with reasonably." In fact, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike, describe Smith as highly intelligent, fair-minded, and honest -- though, as one lawyer who knows Smith put it, "you wouldn't call him a warm, cuddly human being."

When you look at William French Smith's resume, he looks more like a businessman than a lawyer -- head of the Chamber of Commerce, executive board of the Business Roundtable, serves on numerous boards of directors. When I remarked to one of his law partners that Smith seemed, at least on the surface, to be more of a businessman than a lawyer, the partner replied, "There's some truth in that."

The partner then observed that the most important thing Smith would probably do as attorney general would be to pick his deputy and assistants, and those people would run the department on a day-to-day basis and might well end up establishing policy to a large extent.

So what arem Smith's priorities for the Justice Department? In an interview with National Public Radio three days before his nomination was announced, Smith admitted to a certain amount of ignorance on the subject. "You have to know a lot that I do not know at this point . . . before you could come close to listing your priorities. I'm just not at all in a position to do that at this point."

It is this noncommitment to any kind of priorities, plus some of the actions of the transition team, that have FBI agents and career lawyers in the criminal division at Justice worried. FBI agents say that under the leadership of FBI director William Webster and the Carter administration Justice Department, significant progress has been made in cracking down on white-collar crime, official corruption, and organized crime. Now government investigators fear all that may be in jeopardy. They note that some people on the Reagan transition team have been critical of the attack on white-collar crime.

The Business Roundtable, which Smith has been active in, has also been critical of white-collar prosecutions. And during the campaign, FBI agents were upset when Ronald Reagan met with and won the endorsement of certain union bosses with criminal records and known organized crime connections. One of those union officials, Teamster vice-president Jackie Presser, has now been named to the transition team. Presser has never been charged with a crime, but court testimony has linked him to the mob.

In view of all this, it is of more than passing interest to know the views of the attorney general-designate and his priorities in the war against crime.

Certain members of the transition team are advocating a virtual gutting of the Justice Department civil rights division. What are Mr. Smith's views on that, and does he, for example, believe that the US government should continue to prosecute police brutality cases where local governments have been lax?

Smith will also have to give the president advice on various legal matters, including such political hot potatoes as legislation on abortion and busing. What are his views on those questions?

In his interview with NPR, Smith said he didn't know enough yet to have positions on those issues.

Finally, Smith will be advising the president on the selection of federal judges. Smith says he believes Reagan should appoint ideologically conservative judges. And there are those who wonder it Smith himself might like a judicial seat someday on the nation's highest court, the US Supreme Court.

But before Smith or the nation contemplates that possibility, the attorney general must face dozens of pressing law enforcement and legal policy issues. Issues about which William French Smith says he knows almost nothing.

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