December 3, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate President Clinton's fund-raising activities is the latest example of a sometimes problematic relationship. Following a background report, Jim Lehrer and guests take a historical look at the relationship between Presidents and Attorneys General.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 2, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno does not seek an independent counsel.
October 29, 1997:
An administration lawyer explains why tapes of White House coffee were missed.
October 22, 1997:
The Senate committee investigating campaign finance abuses air tapes of White House coffees.
October 15, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno explains to a Senate committee why she extended her review of President Clinton's campaign finance activities.
October 14, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno announced that she was extending the investigation into fund-raising calls made by President Clinton.
October 9, 1997:
The House finally began hearing testimony from witnesses looking into the work of DNC donor "Charlie" Yah Lin Trie.
October 7, 1997:
After a contentious beginning, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes began his testimony before the Senate.
September 11, 1997:
The highest ranking Clinton administration official, National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, testifies on White House screening procedures for donors and guests.
September 9, 1997:
Former DNC Chair Don Fowler defends the actions of the Democrats during the last election.
July 24, 1997:
Former RNC Chair Haley Barbour testifies before the committee about the fund-raising done by the GOP in 1996.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the campaign finance investigation.
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee
U.S. Department of Justice
JIM LEHRER: Attorneys general and presidents; they've had different relationships through the years, none more different possibly than the one now between President Clinton and Janet Reno. Her decision yesterday not to seek an independent counsel at this time to investigate President Clinton's campaign fund-raising brought it into its latest and most dramatic head. Kwame Holman updates that story.
KWAME HOLMAN: Attorney General Janet Reno went about a normal schedule today, appearing this morning at a Washington summit on combating pornography on the Internet. She said nothing more about her decision; however, her action continued to reverberate. On NBC's Today Show Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the House Committee investigating campaign fund-raising, echoed most Republicans in saying Reno was wrong.
REP. DAN BURTON: It's important that there not be the appearance of impropriety. If you look at Section 509 of the Independent Counsel Statute it says wherever there's the question of credibility or a possible conflict of interest, the Attorney General, because it's her boss she's investigating, should get an independent counsel, so that appearance is not prevalent. We want to find out why there's a difference of opinion between the FBI director and the Attorney General on the importance of having an independent counsel.
KWAME HOLMAN: Burton was referring to FBI Director Louis Freeh. The New York Times reported yesterday that Freeh recently sent Reno an extensive private memorandum stating why believed an independent counsel should be appointed. Last night on Capitol Hill congressional Republicans seized on Freeh's dissent. Henry Hyde is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
REP. HENRY HYDE: The decision not to seek an independent counsel on even these limited matters continues a pattern of circling the wagons around the President that we've seen all along from this administration. I want to make it clear--we're not asking for a guilty verdict. We simply want to learn the truth.
KWAME HOLMAN: The New York Times lead editorial today also strongly criticized Janet Reno's legal reasoning and praised Freeh for his reported dissenting view. The editorial said, "Through unnamed aides Mr. Freeh has now asserted that this Attorney General is so mired in conflict of interest that she must step aside and let others investigate her boss." Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee Chairman Burton wants to hear from both the Attorney General and FBI Director Freeh. He has invited them to testify next week.
JIM LEHRER: Now some perspective on the President - Attorney General relationship. It comes from two former attorneys general, Dick Thornburgh in the Bush administration and Nicholas Katzenbach from the Johnson administration, joined by NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss. Michael, first, historically, what has been the relationship between the President and the Attorney General?
The relationship between the President and Attorney General.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, you know, it's a very difficult problem because you've got two roles built into this job. Often times there is a lot of tension between the two sides. On one hand, you've got an Attorney General who's expected to give a President advice, sometimes almost political advice, but certainly advice on how to deal with the legal system and sometimes on other matters, and at the same time the Attorney General is the representative of the American legal system within the administration, a member of the cabinet. So the result is if you look through history, you see attorneys general who have done--sometimes been at one end of the spectrum or another. You look at someone like Robert Kennedy under John Kennedy advised his brother very closely on all matter of things. John Mitchell, also a former campaign manager to Richard Nixon, was Attorney General, got mired down in the Watergate crimes and cover-up. Those are two examples of two very different men and attorneys general, but people who were very much involved in advising their Presidents on all sorts of things. Then you've got at the other end an Attorney General who is almost an alien being, someone who's there to police the administration from within. That does not, by the way, including Nick or Dick, our two fellow guests this evening--
JIM LEHRER: I'm going to give them a chance to respond here.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Otherwise we'd have to do a segment on UFO's.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But one alien being was William Saxby, the last Attorney General under Richard Nixon, who was almost imposed on Nixon because Nixon had fired Elliot Richardson, or caused him to resign, when he refused to fire the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, during Watergate; there was a huge feeling in Congress that Nixon had so compromised this process from within that he would have to take this extremely critical Saxby, Senator from Ohio, who had said all sorts of outrageous things against Nixon, and ultimately called on his own President to resign.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Doris, what would you add to that historic overview that Michael has given?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think most of the time you do see presidents who choose close advisers, at least in the 20th century, to be their attorneys general. I mean, obviously, Bobby Kennedy is the closest of all, where John Kennedy says, I think my brother needs a little bit of experience before he goes out to practice law, and Joe Kennedy, Sr. is saying, this is the one position, Jack, where you've got to have somebody you can trust. He is clearly your lawyer, as well as the government's lawyer. But it turned out pretty well. I mean, you would think that sounded like cronyism, but on the other hand, Bobby Kennedy's considered one of the better Attorney Generals. In the case of Meese and Reagan it didn't turn out so well. In the case of Mitchell and Nixon it didn't turn out very well. In the case of Harry Darety and Warren Harding it didn't turn out very well. So it's not clear that having somebody close--Brownell and Eisenhower--campaign manager, close to Eisenhower--did turn out to be a good Attorney General. And Carter was close to Bell. So it's a natural instinct, I think, because it's such a sensitive position as it's evolved in the 20th century, not simply investigating IRS, as it used to be in the 19th century, but the whole range of policy issues on crime and order, on civil rights, and on now all of these investigations to want somebody you can trust. But it doesn't always turn out that you have that freedom. And that's, of course, what happened to Clinton after the first two Attorney General choices were bonged from him; he went to somebody who didn't know very well, which turned out not to be easy for him, or for her.
JIM LEHRER: Dick Thornburgh, where do you put yourself into this spectrum? Did you see yourself as President Bush's lawyer, as his adviser, or what?
DICK THORNBURGH, Former Bush Attorney General: Well, it's very interesting. When George Bush asked me to stay on as Attorney General, I had been serving President Reagan at the tail end of that administration. He said he was comfortable asking me to stay because I was a friend but not a crony. And there's an important distinction there, obviously. I had known George Bush. I was comfortable with his policies, but I had not been involved with his campaign, and I, in all truth, was not part of his inner circle. I think there was a level of comfort there but that he knew that I was going to carry out my professional responsibilities in a way that didn't necessarily reflect on what he wanted.
JIM LEHRER: But did you see yourself as part of the administration--
DICK THORNBURGH: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: --to carry out the policies of George Bush?
The nation's chief law enforcement officer.
DICK THORNBURGH: No. I think the point's been made that there is a kind of a schizophrenic characteristic to the Attorney General's job. You are a part of the administration. You are a spokesman for the administration before the Congress and to the news media about policies of the administration. You craft opinions for the President on legal matters that he requires advice on, but you're also the nation's chief law enforcement officer. And I think that points up--
JIM LEHRER: And you saw yourself that--you went to work every day--
DICK THORNBURGH: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: -- am the nation's chief law enforcement officer?
DICK THORNBURGH: I sure did. I think that was my job, and I think that that is precisely the role that gives rise to the present controversy.
JIM LEHRER: Sorry.
DICK THORNBURGH: I just wanted to mention one other thing that's more recent.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
DICK THORNBURGH: And I think Nick Katzenbach and I would agree on this; that the phenomenon of the White House Counsel being as important as he or she may be now is something entirely new. And there's where I had an advantage. Boyden Gray was President Bush's White House Counsel. He served for the entire term, and we got along very well. Janet Reno has had to deal with five different White House Counsels. There's been no continuity of experience.
JIM LEHRER: Am I not correct on this, anybody, that nobody had really heard of that job until John Dean came along, am I right about that, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's right. And it's a relatively recent development because at the very beginning, when the job of Attorney General was created, it was even a part-time job. You had attorneys general who were not part of the cabinet until early in the 19th century, and who even were allowed to practice privately. There was no Department of Justice until after the Civil War. So only when the job became so great did you have a President actually appoint a lawyer on the White House staff to deal with things that were somewhat more close to him.
JIM LEHRER: I want to go to Nick Katzenbach. Where do you put yourself on this--in this scale as to how you function as Attorney General in the United States?
NICHOLAS KATZENBACH, Former Johnson Attorney General: How I functioned, well, I think I agree with Dick Thornburgh, I do agree with Dick Thornburgh that the Attorney General is the principal law officer of the government. And that is a very, very important thing to remember. He's representing all of the people. Of course, the President is also, so, in general, the President is the person he's talking to, and he carries out the President's policies, as long as they can be carried out within the parameters of the law.
JIM LEHRER: Did you see any conflict in that when you were Attorney General, in those two different functions, being the President's lawyer and at the same time being responsible for enforcing t he law on the President or anybody who works for him?
NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: Not really. I think President Kennedy and President Johnson expected that to be done. And I gathered from what Dick Thornburgh says the same thing was true of President Bush.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let's put this now in the context of President Clinton and Janet Reno, beginning with you, Mr. Katzenbach. Has there ever been a relationship quite like this? Is this as unusual as it appears to be?
NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: I really think that it is. Certainly when I became Attorney General, the President had every reason to be doubtful of me because I had been Bobby Kennedy's deputy, and he and the President did not get on that well, but he came to, I think, have confidence in at least the fact that I had integrity and some intelligence in my opinions.
JIM LEHRER: And the Janet Reno/Bill Clinton analogy.
The growing role of the White House Counsel.
NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: Well, she hasn't really got, as far as I can make out, very much of a relationship with the President. I think that is, in part, because of the White House Counsel and the growing importance of White House Counsel has cut the Attorney General out of many of the policy matters that the Department of Justice has customarily dealt with. How much it has cut out advice to the President on that--on those matters, I simply don't know, but I do think she is isolated, and I think--I must say I think what she did in this particular instance was exactly the right thing to do and a very courageous one.
JIM LEHRER: What's your view of that, Dick Thornburgh?
DICK THORNBURGH: Well, I have a good deal of sympathy for Janet Reno. I think she's been treated very shabbily by this White House from the very outset when they sent over one of the First Lady's law partners, Webster Hubbell, who turned out to be a crook, as a baby sitter for her in the Department of Justice, and then they began to fool around with the FBI and the Department of Justice and the investigation of Vincent Foster's death and the Travel Gate affair, where they tried to involve the FBI in what they thought was criminal investigation, the ordering up of 900 files of prominent Republicans for use by political operatives in the White House--goes on and on, right up to the very present, where the day before Attorney General Reno, in effect, exonerated President Clinton from a long list of campaign finance things; she was not told about the existence of the tapes that related to these in a meeting with then White House Counsel. And I think--I have a good deal of sympathy for--you know, Herbert Brownell, who we referred to as Eisenhower's Attorney General, once said any Attorney General who's popular isn't doing his job. And I think you expect a certain amount of heat from the Hill. You can tolerate a certain amount of heat from the White House, but yesterday, there's a clear rift for the first time in my memory between the head of the FBI, the chief investigative agency, and the Attorney General, the chief law enforcement--that seems to me to be about the last straw for the breakdown in the ability of the Attorney General to be effective and be credible in her job.
JIM LEHRER: Last straw, Doris, what's your view of this?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it seems that there never was a chance for Janet Reno and the President to develop a working relationship in the first place; no camaraderie that developed over projects. When I think about Mr. Katzenbach, how exciting it must have been to work with Lyndon Johnson on civil rights, to draft the Voting Rights Act, even if they hadn't known each other as friends, they had that chance of taking the measure of one another through some great social issues. What we've had with Janet Reno, unfortunately, are these five different prosecution cases, so it's been a tension from the start, somebody he didn't know, she didn't know, and there's never been a shot for her. And I feel badly for her too. I don't think it's fair she was asked to be put in the position. I don't see who made the attempt to try and develop a working relationship. It's much harder to be an Attorney General today. I think it would be much less fun than it was years ago before these prosecutors came along.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, what about--she hadn't been there very long when she was asked to make a decision on an independent counsel involving a member of the administration. How would it have been possible for her to have developed a relationship with the President with those kinds of decisions having--there are five of them--or six of them she's already appointing. She's made some other decisions in addition to those.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's one problem in these times. We're living in a time when politics is very criminalized, much more confrontational. And I think a lot of these close relationships between Presidents and AG's we've been talking about have been somewhat in the past, and I think we may not see their like again in the near future.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, they're all going to be independent souls, such as--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They're going to be--
JIM LEHRER: --Janet Reno?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: --very much scrutinized by every member of Congress and everyone in the United States. They're going to be looking for evidence that this person is compromised. And so the result is that Presidents will be tempted to choose people with whom they don't have much of a relationship and don't get to build one. The big irony is that this is a job Bill Clinton cared a lot about. You never would have imagined that this really would have happened had you heard him during the ‘92 campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Do you agree, Dick--
DICK THORNBURGH: The right direction would be to get rid of this Independent Counsel Statute, which I know Nick Katzenbach and I share a view, is an abomination.
JIM LEHRER: But do you agree with Michael's basic point, Dick Thornburgh, that what this has done has changed forever the nature of the Attorney General's job?
DICK THORNBURGH: No. I'm deadly serious about the intervention of this foolish statute. We had independent counsels appointed in the Watergate affair without any statutory requirement, and, indeed, Ms. Reno appointed an independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation while the statute was defunct. And I think this statute is--has much too low a threshold, much too broad a reach, and I think we ought to rely on the Attorney General and, indeed, the President to make those judgments about when an independent counsel is necessary. And all this focus on the ins and outs of the statute I think is counterproductive.
JIM LEHRER: Nick Katzenbach, would you agree, though, that as long as there is an independent counsel law that it would be extremely difficult for any President to appoint an old type political crony, an old campaign type that used to be appointed Attorney General?
Mr. Katznebach: "The statute is an abomination...."
NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: Yes, I think that probably is right. It's--I agree with Dick Thornburgh that the statute is an abomination, and it is actually working to make the public think of the Department of Justice not as an even-handed agency but one that is politicized by almost every decision that it makes. It's creating distrust in government, and I think abomination is a mild word.
JIM LEHRER: Abomination, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I must agree. I think it sounds--it doesn't sound good, as I listen to these two experienced people tell me better than what I know--but it does seem to have taken a rift in terms of what the Justice Department is able to do, make it unable to take positive steps. I mean, it used to be the protector of our justice, of our social justice, all those great days of civil rights when FDR's Attorney General drafted the Lend-Lease Act. I mean, those are the kind of things you hope that are happening in the country, and, instead, we're on such a negative tendency, not just with this independent prosecutor but with everything that seems to be going on these days.
JIM LEHRER: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Something FDR's Attorney General also did was he gave Roosevelt rulings that were a little bit overly favorable to things that really may have infringed upon the law in 1940--neutrality acts which we may like, in retrospect, but the Attorney General was probably a little bit too close. The paradox is that the reason for this Independent Prosecutor Act in ‘78 was actually to solve this conflict between these two roles. Obviously, there are big problems, and if it suspended, we're going to have to find some other way of doing that.
JIM LEHRER: That was the whole point.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: So a presidential appointee would not have to make--would not have to investigate the person who appointed them; that was the whole point of the independent counsel, right, Dick Thornburgh?
DICK THORNBURGH: We had plenty of instances where wise attorneys general saw fit to appoint independent prosecutors from outside the Department of Justice when there was a clear conflict of interest.
JIM LEHRER: But on their own--it was not a requirement of the law?
DICK THORNBURGH: Right.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
DICK THORNBURGH: And it's one of those judgment calls you simply can't write into law.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. But they did it, didn't they?
DICK THORNBURGH: Not very well.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, we'll leave it there. Doris, gentlemen, thank you all very much.