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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 1999/18 Shevat, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Our own Inspector Clouseau

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) JANET RENO NOW HOLDS THE PRIZE not only for being the nation's longest-serving attorney general, but the most successfully apathetic. None of her successors has been able to ignore suspicions of wrongdoing in high places so long and so effectively. And certainly not with such an utterly straight face. Not pipe-smoking John Mitchell or stolid Richard Kleindienst back in the Nixon Years, or even the formally acquitted Harry Daugherty in the Harding Era. They were all amateurs compared to this deadpan pro with the lifeless voice and immobile features.

After putting off her non-decision until the last possible legal minute, General Reno has decided not to ask for an independent investigation of Harold Ickes, former deputy chief of the White House staff, on the basis of his suspect testimony before a Senate committee. Is anybody surprised?

Ms. Magoo
As usual, Ms. Magoo sees no conflict of interest in her choosing not to order an investigation of another colleague in this administration. She performed much the same service for the president and vice president last year, when she declined to request an investigation of their dubious fund-raising tactics in the White House. Smaller fry may be fair game, but nobody near the top.

So now one of the biggest and most flagrant of the Clinton Scandals -- which is saying a lot, for there are so many to choose from -- has been adroitly swept under the already bulging rug.

Over the years, the informal slogan of Janet Reno's Justice Department has become a lot clearer than those fine words about truth and justice engraved on public buildings across the country. Her motto: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. At least if higher-ups are involved.

The key qualification for attorney general of the United States in 1999 is a lack of curiosity. No wonder Janet Reno has stayed in office so long. Next to letting bygone be bygones, this administration's favorite policy is not noticing them at all. If you didn't know better, you'd confuse her with the last of the straight-faced kidders. Except she appears to be perfectly serious.

Not since Peter Sellers has intelligence managed to act so dim. Janet Reno is our own Inspector Clouseau. Think of her as the favorite aunt who never could see how you were doing anything wrong, no matter how blatant.

There is a great deal of talk these blase days about junking independent counsels rather than just trying to impose some limits on them. Trials and investigations are such a bother when the economy is booming. But there's really no need to abolish the independent counsel statute so long as Janet Reno is attorney general. With her on the job, it'll never be used anyway. At least not if anybody important is involved.

Ms. Reno seems to move through the law and facts as if she were encased in an impermeable bubble, untouched and untouchable by the stench all around her. One would have to go back to the Nixon administration to find an attorney general so blind, deaf and numb to the ethically suspect and legally dubious.

(That's not counting Webb Hubbell, who was only de facto head of the Justice Department.)

But so many things about the Clinton Gang bring to mind the Nixon one. Which is not to say they're the same, not at all. For example, not counting a fleeting fantasy, can anyone imagine Bill Clinton's having the honor to resign?

These are not fashionable times for honor. It is certainly not prominent among what Oliver Wendell Holmes called ``the felt necessities of the time'' that determine the rules by which men live and societies change. Mr. Justice Holmes could have been describing this or any age when he wrote that the ``substance of the law at any given time pretty nearly corresponds, so far as it goes, with what is then understood to be convenient.''

And it would not be convenient to investigate Harold Ickes or Al Gore or -- as has now been made clear in excruciating abundance by the U.S. Senate -- Bill Clinton. Janet Reno's jurisprudence is but confirmation of the Holmesian vision of law as expedience codified. Call it defining law down.

Now the attorney general has closed the books on still another troubling case, and everybody is supposed to sigh with relief and move on. The theory is that if enough inconvenient evidence can be overlooked, or swept under the already bulging carpet, then no one will notice.

At the moment, American society rushes to closure, not justice. It is vaguely hoped that the two will prove one and the same thing. Not many dare to dwell on the difference between the two, lest the whole mirage dissipate. The country seems determined to put all this behind us by putting all this off and, in the mantra of the day, Moving On.

And so we go off in search of some middle path, some golden mean, some perfect balance between truth and falsehood, justice and corruption, legality and illegality, law and expedience, memory and amnesia.

Call it censure. Or a Finding of Fact. So long as we don't actually have to face the consequences of what we know.

But here and there people begin to ask: If one scandal after another now has been put behind us, why do new ones keep looming on the horizon?

Maybe it has something to do with the kind of ethical and legal climate we're creating, the kind of society and culture we're eroding by our oh-so-sophisticated indifference.

When so many scandals can be so successfully ignored, more are invited.


2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99:Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99:Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99:Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate