Dick Thornburgh: From Fumbles To Touchdowns

You might forgive Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh if a wry smile crosses his lips as 1991 arrives. Eight months ago, the former Pennsylvania governor was considered the underachiever of the Bush Administration. Clumsy personnel moves, bruising run-ins with Washington interest groups, and cool relations with Congress and the press had tarnished Thornburgh's reputation as a savvy pol. Now, with John H. Sununu's White House crew developing a bad case of fumble-fingers, Dick Thornburgh is suddenly looking like one of the Administration's steadier hands.

The turning point came this summer with President Bush's surprise choice of David H. Souter for the Supreme Court. Justice Dept. officials had anticipated an opening on the high court, and their homework, aided by former Reagan White House aide Kenneth M. Duberstein's grueling prepping of the nominee, paid off. The judge's personal life held up under intense media scrutiny, and his decisions offered no ammunition to his opponents. "Justice deserves a lot of credit for making it so smooth," says a top Bush aide.

FRAUD COUPS. Emboldened by his success with Souter, Thornburgh defused another political land mine: criticism of the Administration's savings and loan cleanup. Just as lawmakers began to ask embarrassing questions about the role of Neil Bush in the S&L mess, Thornburgh prodded U. S. attorneys to speed up their prosecutorial blitz, then trumpeted their successes. "Besides it being important to do things, you have to tell people what you're doing," says a department insider. Under Thornburgh, Justice has brought some 400 financial fraud cases and won 385 convictions. In December, it scored two S&L case victories: a conviction of former Vernon Savings & Loan head Don Dixon and a guilty plea from former Sunbelt Savings Assn. Chairman Edwin T. McBirney III.

Thornburgh also won White House praise for his deft handling of a key legislative battle in the last Congress. Early on, Justice lawyers had counseled the White House to take on liberal lawmakers over the Civil Rights Act, blasting the employment-discrimination package as a quota bill. The advice produced a payoff when the Senate couldn't override the President's veto of the bill, and the quota question helped Republicans beat some Democratic liberals in November.

Thornburgh took his lousy press reviews to heart and instituted important changes in the way the department deals with the public. A flap over a damaging leak led him to jettison two key members of the insular team he brought from Harrisburg. Thornburgh then installed as Deputy Attorney General former CIA and White House lawyer William P. Barr, who has mended fences with department adversaries. And Thornburgh is relying more on a cadre of assistant attorneys general who supervise the antitrust, tax, and civil divisions. Even the beleaguered public-affairs office has become more professional and less secretive.

The yearend indictments of Chicago-area officials on corruption charges and the racketeering charges filed against the Atlantic City casino workers union show that Thornburgh isn't easing up on his white-collar-crime crackdown. And his aides are working on a splashy "crime summit" to highlight Administration moves to make the streets safe.

Thornburgh's image as a crusading prosecutor and his success at handling politically sensitive issues will keep him in good stead with George Bush. Although Thornburgh stumbled in his early outings in Washington, he did something few of his fellow bureaucrats can bring themselves to do: He listened, learned, and adapted.

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