Attorney General Miscues Shake Clinton Bid to Regain Momentum


THE White House is scrambling to find a new nominee for attorney general while trying to limit the political fallout from the stunning withdrawal of the leading candidate for the position.

Late last week, United States District Court Judge Kimba Wood of New York emerged as the leading contender for the job. But in a bizarre turn of events, Judge Wood withdrew her name from consideration after it emerged that she had hired an illegal immigrant as a baby sitter. A similar "nanny problem" sank President Clinton's previous choice for the position, Zoe Baird.

Although there were crucial differences between the two cases - Wood hired her illegal immigrant before it was illegal to do so and says she paid all the appropriate taxes - the White House apparently concluded that it would be too politically damaging to proceed with the nomination.

Mr. Clinton tried hard to put the controversy behind him, projecting a business-as-usual attitude this weekend. "I don't think there is a perception ... that the president is stumbling," said White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers.

But the controversy has caused some political damage. The flap over the attorney general appointment dominated weekend news coverage after a week in which Clinton generally had been successful in focusing public attention on his administration's economic agenda and away from the issue of homosexuals in the military. Now the search for an attorney general threatens to distract the White House from its effort during the coming week to build support for the economic plan Clinton will unveil in his State of the Union address on Feb. 17.

"It's a momentum-staller," says Tobe Berkovitz, a Democratic political consultant and professor at Boston University. "Clinton didn't get out of the blocks particularly well. And just as he started to build up a little steam, this has slowed him down dramatically."

Mr. Berkovitz adds that the whole affair has left the president's staff "looking to some degree like the gang that couldn't shoot straight," but that the controversy is not "fatal" for the administration and matters more to "opinion leaders than to common Americans."

The Clinton administration is planning to return to an earlier list of nominees in its search for someone to head the Justice Department. Besides Wood, the two leading candidates for the job late last week were Charles Ruff, a former Watergate special prosecutor, and former Gov. Gerald Baliles (D) of Virginia. But neither was picked after Wood withdrew - perhaps in part because Mr. Ruff did not pay Social Security taxes for a woman who worked in his household.

The larger problem for Clinton is that he committed early on to picking a woman for 1 of the top 4 Cabinet posts - Treasury, State, Defense, or Justice. Three of those posts already have been filled by men, which puts extra pressure on the president to appoint a female attorney general. If he does not, women's groups are concerned that he will leave the impression that there are only two qualified women in the whole country and both of them hired illegal aliens.

"We're keyed on having women fill the top positions," says Pat Riley, a spokeswoman for the National Women's Political Caucus.

The president's top pick, federal Judge Patricia Wald, has repeatedly refused to take the post. In a legal profession long dominated by men, Clinton has been hard-pressed to come up with a credible alternative.

"If you artificially remove from consideration a large segment of the most qualified people by a bean-counter mentality, you make things hard on yourself," says Charles Fried, a Harvard Law School professor who was solicitor general in the Reagan administration. "The nonminority, male half of the population includes a lot of experienced and able people."

Wood's withdrawal may be explained, in part, by the fact that, while she impressed the president and his wife during an interview, she had not garnered strong support in Washington that would have allowed her to weather the "nanny problem."

Wood did not possess either a strong law enforcement background or managerial experience - both qualifications often sought in an attorney general. Before becoming a federal judge in 1988, she spent 17 years as a commercial litigator at the large Manhattan law firm of LaBoeuf, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae. At the firm, she never took a case to a jury verdict, nor did she serve on the management committee.

Moreover, she is not well-known either to the general public or to fellow lawyers. Her major claim to attention was as the judge who sentenced Wall Street financier Michael Milken to 10 years in jail on insider-trading charges and then reduced the sentence to two years. A reporter's calls to prominent legal scholars and attorneys in recent days produced a reaction of "Kimba who?"

Wood's final drawback was that she lacked a strong political base. As a moderate Democrat appointed to the bench by President Reagan, she did not fire the passions of either conservatives or liberals. And, although a woman, she did not have a strong constituency among feminists.

"She was being pushed by professionals, not by feminists," says Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who has known Wood since her student days. "She was not well-known among feminists."

The very fact that Wood was non-ideological and nonpolitical may have made her an excellent attorney general, Professor Dershowitz contends. But it also helped to ensure that few presidential aides or top congressmen would be willing to battle to the bitter end on her behalf.

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