A day after a bruising victory for his Supreme Court nominee, President Bush on Wednesday nominated William P. Barr to become the next attorney general, choosing a respected 41-year-old conservative who seems unlikely to spark another bitter confirmation battle.
In selecting the Justice Department’s No. 2 official to fill the void left since the resignation of Dick Thornburgh, Bush praised Barr for having withstood a test of fire in the more than two months he has served as the agency’s acting chief.
The impromptu announcement at an otherwise routine ceremony appeared to reflect Bush’s determination to shift the nation’s attention from the unsettling and, for some, still unresolved charges involving the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Only a few hours earlier, Bush criticized the steps taken by the Senate in investigating the Thomas case as “simply not fair” and vowed to propose a series of reforms to guarantee better treatment for future nominees.
In passing over a long list of politicians to appoint “a thorough professional,” Bush appeared to guarantee that his choice would be spared the grueling inquisition to which Thomas and Robert M. Gates, the as-yet-unconfirmed designee as head of the CIA, have been subjected.
At the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose members and staff were still recovering from the 107-day Thomas ordeal, key Democratic aides said that they knew of nothing that would prevent Barr from winning swift confirmation.
For Barr, the nomination culminates what has been a meteoric rise through the ranks of government, where his close connections to the White House and tough negotiating style have won him a reputation within the Administration as a powerful conservative force.
Barr is best known at the Justice Department as the author of a 1989 legal opinion, the details of which are still secret, contending that U.S. agents can make arrests overseas without the permission of foreign governments. He also drafted an opinion used to justify the arrest by U.S. military forces of then-Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega.
As deputy and then acting attorney general, Barr has played a major role in blocking a proposal that would permit more AIDS-infected persons to enter the United States and is regarded at the White House as a hard-liner on matters involving civil rights.
Earlier, as an adviser to Bush’s 1988 campaign, Barr assisted in the process that helped select then little-known Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana for the No. 2 slot on the Republican ticket.
But even his critics have praised Barr’s performance as the day-to-day manager of the Justice Department during the stormy Thornburgh tenure and as an acting chief who distinguished himself when he directed the Aug. 31 rescue of nine hostages held for 10 days by armed Cuban inmates at a federal prison in Talledega, Ala.
The successful assault by an FBI hostage-rescue team followed days of careful planning by a Barr-led team in the culmination of a high-stakes showdown that Bush said meant that his future attorney general had been “tested by fire.”
“I was proud of him then, and I’m proud today,” Bush said in announcing the Barr nomination at a Rose Garden ceremony convened to honor other Justice Department officials. In brief remarks, Barr said that he looked forward to leading an agency committed to “enforcing the law in an even-handed way and with integrity.”
Justice Department and White House officials expressed hope that confirmation hearings could begin by early next month to give the Senate time to vote on the nomination before the end of the year.
Some White House aides, including Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, were said to have urged Bush to select as his attorney general a well-known politician who might help deliver Republican votes for the President in key states in next year’s reelection campaign. Among those mentioned were Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft and former California Gov. George Deukmejian.
But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that Barr was “the leading candidate all along,” and another official said that the view within the White House had been that Bush would be best-served by an attorney general unlikely to be controversial.
Thornburgh resigned as attorney general in order to run for the U.S. Senate seat from Pennsylvania.
With the Justice Department expected to come under Democratic criticism for its slow response to the Bank of Credit & Commerce International scandal as well as the savings and loan debacle, “You don’t want some meatball in that position,” one White House official said.
Although he has spent fewer than three years at the department, Barr has long had ties to Bush and is regarded as particularly adept at the behind-the-scenes debate in which key policies are shaped.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-N.C.), ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will conduct hearings on the nomination, praised Barr for having done an “outstanding job” at the Justice Department and said his background “will serve him well in this important position.” Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said that the committee would “act promptly to schedule fair and thorough hearings on the nominee.”