The late Hall of Fame baseball umpire Bill Klem summed up his idea of justice: “I call ‘em as I see ‘em.”
Paint those seven words on the banner of Janet Reno, an attorney general everybody loves to hate.
She may look like a starched, prim, spinsterish schoolmarm. But Reno is a tough cookie with steely resistance to pressure, whether from the president’s friends or the Republican right.
She irked Clinton & Co. by four times putting independent counsels on the trail of Cabinet members or the prez and wife. She barely hung onto her job.
She infuriated everyone from militia loonies to liberals by ordering the Waco attack - by far, to my mind, her worst blunder.
Now she’s enraged Republicans by flatly turning down their bullying demands that she sic an outside counsel on the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign misdeeds.
Her words were stiffly formal: “At this time we have no specific, credible evidence that any covered White House official may have committed a federal crime.”
That’s a red flag in the face of Republican senators who saw a criminal investigation of Clinton-Gore as payback for Democrat hassling of Reagan and Bush administrations.
Their fury won’t go away. I suspect they’ll move heaven and Earth to publicly embarrass Reno, make her back down or force her resignation.
“Inexcusable,” said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “There’s a clear conflict of interest.”
“Is she the protector of the president or the enforcer of the law?” asked House Speaker Newt Gingrich, leaving no doubt about his answer.
If Reno won’t hire an outside counsel to investigate Clinton, well, they’ll investigate Reno. They’ll call her before a judiciary committee, muscle her under oath, keep up the heat, hoping she’ll quit.
Easy to predict how the unflappable Reno will defend her choice not to pursue Clinton-Gore campaign scams. She’ll say she depended on career Justice lawyers’ advice. Once a week, Reno calls the three top lawyers - Mark Richard, Lee Radek and Craig Donsanto, cumulatively in the department over 70 years.
“See any evidence that would trigger the independent-counsel statute?” she asks. So far, the answer is no.
Reno insulates herself from the political storm this way. But face it, not going after Clinton-Gore is her own call. Is she right? I’d say only Reno’s reputation for fearless honor shields her from criticism. To a layman, the Clinton-Gore campaign sleaze - Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers, coffees-for-cash, Asian moneymen, the dialing-for-dollars - shouts of legal abuses.
If she hears no fire bell for an independent counsel, well, I’ll have to trust Reno’s history of rocklike detachment.
The obvious brush with the law, seems to me, was Al Gore’s confessed 60 calls-for-cash from White House phones. Section 607(a) of the Criminal Code: “It shall be illegal for any person to solicit to receive any contribution in a federal building.”
How does Reno clear Gore? She says Al’s trolling for dollars “on a government telephone, charging the calls to a non-government (Democratic National Committee) credit card” was all right under a regulation allowing “incidental use of government property for lawful purposes.”
Hmmm. Anyway, says Reno, Gore was asking for “soft money” for Democratic party advertising. She razzes Congress for making soft money a free game.
OK, what about fat-cat donors who used the Lincoln bedroom like Motel Six? Or White House coffee hustles? Reno says Bill’s private residence is “outside the scope of the law.”
I doubt if Reno’s heavy leaning on lawbooks soothes Republicans’ wrath. Nevertheless, their innuendo that Reno is in Clinton’s pocket rings phony. There have been attorney generals too cozy with presidents - John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s henchman, for one.
But Reno is not Clinton’s gofer, confidante or patsy. She didn’t hesitate to nail Clinton Cabinet members Henry Cisneros, Mike Espy or the late Ron Brown with independent counsels. Or invoke the law that now has Ken Starr on a Whitewater prowl. I suspect Clinton rehired Reno only because he couldn’t dump Ms. Clean, his one unsullied star.
“In my heart, I never missed a call,” said Bill Klem.
In the special-counsel flap, I’ve got to trust Janet Reno’s feisty heart. And her clear eye for the law.
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