THE announcement that Attorney General Dick Thornburgh will resign to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania is not a surprise. Ever since Sen. John Heinz died in a plane crash two months ago, Mr. Thornburgh - a former two-term governor - has been under pressure from his party to try to keep the seat in the GOP column. Thornburgh's administration of the Justice Department hasn't been particularly distinguished. He polished up the department's tarnished image after he succeeded Edwin Meese in 1988, but, when President Bush kept him on after the election, Thornburgh fumbled the ball on several occasions. In the last year or so, however, he has guided the department competently into major enforcement offensives against drug pushers and S&L crooks.
Attention turns to a successor. Because politics cannot be kept out of the administration of justice, it rarely has been kept out of the AG's office. With only a few exceptions like Ford appointee Edward Levi, attorney generals haven't been legal scholars. Most have felt as much at home in the political caucus room as in the law library. But there are respected political appointees (Elliot Richardson, Griffin Bell), and there are presidential cronies (Meese). Bush must certainly avoid the latter.
With the 1992 election on the horizon, the next attorney general likely will be an advocate for Bush's political agenda in the justice area. No doubt that means, regrettably, that we will continue to hear from the Justice Department strong pitches for capital punishment, against meaningful gun control, against choice on abortion, and against affirmative action-labeled-as-quotas.
Those are elements of the Bush agenda, and he won't select an attorney general who doesn't share those views. But the nation's top lawyer must be a person who will argue the president's case with reason, balance, and intellectual honesty; who will appoint qualified aides of undeviating personal integrity; and who will administer the laws of the land fairly and in the interest of all Americans.