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Jewish World Review / Dec. 1, 1998 /12 Kislev, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law

WHEN DIRECTOR OF THE FBI, Louis Freeh, urged that the attorney general of the United States appoint still another independent counsel -- this time to investigate the administration's campaign finance scandal -- Janet Reno moved swiftly: She immediately sought advice from another quarter. This time she appointed a respected prosecutor, Charles LaBella, to advise her. He reached the same conclusion Director Freeh had.

Having had her fill of advice she didn't want to accept, General Reno decided to follow her own and not appoint an independent counsel. She now has dismissed the evidence and proclaimed the vice president beyond suspicion. It's not true that the Justice Department has adopted a new motto on her dim watch (``Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil''), but the slogan would certainly fit.

Unless a court can be found that will enjoin Attorney General Magoo to do her duty under the law, Al Gore is home free, no matter what the evidence, and no matter what honorable men like Messrs. Freeh and LaBella advocate. Is anybody surprised? Only the discovery of a handwritten note made by an aide to the vice president had forced the attorney general to go through the motions of considering a special prosecutor in the first place. If this were a Monopoly game, Al Gore would have just drawn the Get Out of Jail Free card.

This week the vice president, next week the president? Bill Clinton, too, was involved in soliciting campaign contributions from the White House, but an attorney general who can't see the need for an independent investigation of the administration's No. 2 man isn't likely to demand an investigation of No. 1. Among the usual suspects, only a lower-down like Harold Ickes may eventually rate an independent counsel. Or our sleepy watchdog may forget about that matter, too.

The key qualification for an attorney general in this administration remains a willingness to let bygones be bygones. Janet Reno now has qualified abundantly. Having dropped this investigation, the attorney general assured all: ``We will continue to vigorously investigate all allegations of illegal activity.'' Somehow one is not assured.

Should you still harbor any doubts about the vice president's actions in the fund-raising fiasco, just consider his latest character reference. According to Joe Lockhart, the new Mike McCurry at the White House, Bill Clinton ``believes the vice president has always acted within the letter and spirit of the law.'' There. Could you get a higher recommendation? Who would know more about the letter and spirit of the law in 1998, not to mention all possible evasions thereof, than William Jefferson Clinton?

Janet Reno has found a way to avoid the obvious need for an independent counsel to investigate the whole, many-tentacled mess that was the Clinton-Gore campaign of '96 and its dubious finances. She concentrated instead on the narrow question of whether Al Gore lied to the FBI. As for the Chinese connection, and the plans to get around the campaign finance laws by the very crew that talks loudest about reforming them ... all of that was ignored. One was reminded of Mister Magoo examining a doorknob so intently, he misses the door.

Let it be said for Mister Magoo that his is a physical, not an ethical, problem. There's nothing wrong with Janet Reno's eyesight; she has no problem seeing the smallest way around the obvious.

In the end, it is no one particular law that this ethically inert administration has failed to respect, but the spirit of all of them. The whole great structure of the law begins to totter when men come to see it not as a guide or restraint, but just a series of obstacles to evade.

Remove the basis of law -- like the search for truth that once made perjury a serious charge -- and any individual law may be got around, too. Crimes are minimized. And if prosecutors cannot be ignored, they can always be demonized.

Deprive the laws of the land of their force, and they soon lose their moral authority over us. The telltale phrases that mark such a downward spiral are already familiar: Everybody does it. It's not a high crime, and therefore it isn't a crime at all, or at least not one that should carry any penalty. It's time to Move On, and deal with the real business of the country, which isn't specified. Whatever the business of the country is in 1998, it's clearly not encouraging respect for the law.

One after the other, whether they involve campaign contributions or obstruction of justice, great matters or small, individual laws are got around. And soon enough the idea of law itself will be shrugged off, or explained away.

The law for the law's sake becomes an impossible concept to explain; we have been immunized against its rule by one political decision after another. Like Janet Reno's last week.

No wonder Americans come to assume that we are ruled by the polls, or the election results, or the spirit of the times, or the most persuasive personalities. ... The rule of law becomes a platitude reserved for ceremonial occasions, a quaint concept that all repeat but no one may believe. If there is a single, unavoidable contribution that the Age of Clinton has made to American jurisprudence, it is an all-persuasive cynicism.

The view of the law as as a garden of reason rooted in factual truth, rather than just another maze of mendacity in our postmodern world, becomes harder and harder to explain. Anyone who points out the dangers of this mindless course on which we have embarked can expect to be denounced as a Puritan, which today is a far more damaging accusation than Perjurer. That ought to tell us something about where we are headed. It's not up.


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