Attorney General To Leave Justice Department Amid Mixed Reviews
During his tenure, Thornburgh put strong emphasis on criminal enforcement, but analysts say it was also a time of political ambition and partisanship
WASHINGTON — THOSE who expected Dick Thornburgh to restore morale and professional credibility to the Justice Department, after the tribulations of former Attorney General Edwin Meese, have been disappointed. Those skeptical that the former Pennsylvania governor was a true conservative in a post critical to conservative concerns have been pleasantly surprised.
When Mr. Thornburgh leaves by late July to run for the US Senate from Pennsylvania, he will have spent three years as attorney general to mixed reviews.
The imprint he leaves on the Justice Department is probably not a strong one, according to a variety of legal professionals.
His successes come, not from striking new initiatives but from building on directions begun under the Reagan administration.
Under Mr. Meese, the Justice Department was near the center of the Reagan revolution. He stressed social issues such as abortion and pornography and pushed for colorblind civil rights standards and putting conservative judges on the federal bench.
Under Thornburgh, the department has put stronger emphasis on criminal enforcement, especially of crimes involving guns or drugs. He has spent much of his time on the more mundane work of improving cooperation internationally, as well as among state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies.
Thornburgh also hit some decidedly unconservative notes. He has promoted strong enforcement of civil rights protection for the disabled, strong sanctions against corporations and white-collar criminals, and aggressive pursuit of environmental crimes.
Alan Slobodin of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, though otherwise "cheered by his achievements," calls Thornburgh "excessive" and "overzealous" against white-collar and environmental crime.
While Meese developed a reputation for cronyism and faces conflict-of-interest allegations in the Wedtech scandal, "it was absolutely clear that Thornburgh was clean as a whistle on that score," says Paul Rothstein, a professor af the Georgetown University Law Center.
Criticisms center on Thornburgh's remote management style and his alleged political partisanship in administering justice.
Thornburgh is credited almost universally as a team player on the Bush administration. He is currently the point man for the battles in Congress over civil rights and crime legislation.
He is also commonly described as a man with higher political aspirations, heavily coloring his handling of department business.
This political partisanship is why such members of Congress as Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware and Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York have asked Thornburgh to step down immediately from the Justice Department now that he has announced his Senate run.
"There was always a bit of tension between him and the professional Justice staffers," says Professor Rothstein. "He is basically a politician, and I think that was the source of the tension."
"He ran it like a ward pol in Pennsylvania," says Sheldon Krantz, a law professor at American University who chaired the criminal justice section of the American bar Association when it was in a dispute with the attorney general. "He really reduced the dialogue to one of real nastiness."
Thornburgh brought a small cadre of aides from Pennsylvania to run the Justice Department. Until the past year, they served to isolate him from even top-ranking Justice officials. One deputy, Donald Ayer, resigned last year, charging that Thornburgh had interfered, to protect close aides, with the investigation of a leak to the press. One Pennsylvania aide, Henry Barr, was recently convicted of cocaine use and perjury.
Some legal professionals miss the engaged, straightforward style of Ed Meese, even if they disliked his politics. "A common theme inside the department and out," says Professor Krantz, "is that Ed Meese looks very good by comparison."
Even when Meese was on a hard ideological attack, says Krantz, "if you had a meeting, he would come, stay all day, and listen." Thornburgh did not have that kind of patience.
Many researchers and scholars in the criminal justice field accuse Thornburgh of bringing an unprecedented political spin to justice statistics. In the Bureau of Justice Statistics, researchers sometimes go off the record with reporters before offering data or analysis that does not support Administration policy.
Yet Robert DuPont, former head of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, recalls that Drug Use Forecast data showed cocaine use surprisingly high just when the Bush administration badly wanted to show it going down.
"They stuck with those numbers," he says. "I saw the discomfort. I saw the conflict. But in the end, [the Drug Use Forecast program] got more funding."
Thornburgh probably accomplished what most observers assume was a major goal: to establish his credibility with the conservatives holding veto power over national GOP politicians.
He was known as a moderate governor of Pennsylvania. "A lot of people were skeptical at first," says Tom Jipping, director of the Center for Law and Democracy at the conservative Free Congress Foundation. "But I think he definitely established himself with conservatives."