No Bush administration Cabinet member has been a bigger disappointment than Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. The former governor of Pennsylvania came to Washington in the final days of the Reagan administration with a reputation as a pragmatic professional who could help to lead the Justice Department beyond the personal and political embarrassments that former Attorney General Ed Meese brought to the department. Instead, Thornburgh leaves the Justice Department even more politicized and demoralized than he found it.
Under Thornburgh as under Meese, the Justice Department has shown little interest in enforcing civil rights laws or prosecuting major white-collar crimes. Like Meese, Thornburgh has offered more cheap posturing than serious policy on the drug issue. Like Meese, Thornburgh eagerly allowed himself and his office to be seen as political tools of the president, rather than sources of professional judgment and expertise.
And not even Meese, whose personal propriety was hardly beyond reproach, had four of his top appointees forced out of office under the cloud of scandal.
Meese also wasn't responsible for the atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia that pervades the Justice Department as Thornburgh prepares to return to Pennsylvania to run for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. John Heinz. That unpleasant atmosphere is a direct reflection of Thornburgh's increasingly aloof and imperious manner, and the next attorney general will have to deal with that morale problem before trying to restore the department's reputation for independence and integrity.
By insisting on remaining in the attorney general's office for several more weeks after announcing his plans to run for the Senate, Thornburgh has created one final controversy for the Justice Department. Virtually everyone but Thornburgh seems to recognize the inherent questions of propriety that would be raised about anyone who chose to remain in a major law enforcement position after announcing plans to seek partisan political office. Typically, though, Thornburgh claims that those calling for his immediate resignation have political motives of their own.
In truth, it is Thornburgh who has consistently placed politics above propriety, behaving more like a political candidate than a law enforcement official. Now that Thornburgh will be leaving to seek a more appropriate job, President Bush has a second chance to select an independent-minded professional who can rehabilitate the Justice Department. Given the modern track record of Democratic and Republican presidents alike, no one should bet on that happening.