Federal Judge Kimba M. Wood emerged Thursday as President Clinton's leading choice for attorney general, with one government source saying that she has been "offered" the opportunity to become the first woman to hold that post.
However, White House officials late Thursday cautioned that Clinton, disturbed by widespread leaks of Wood's name, might be reconsidering the decision and could well decide to choose another candidate.
Other sources agreed that she was Clinton's first choice, although they said that she has not been offered the job. They noted that an FBI background investigation has not begun.
A thorough appraisal of Wood's background is thought to be especially important because Clinton's original choice for the job, Zoe Baird, withdrew her nomination under fire for having hired illegal immigrants for child care and household help.
Asked Thursday if he was close to naming Wood, Clinton said simply, "Tune in."
White House officials said that no announcement was expected today.
The Times reported Thursday that Clinton had narrowed his list of attorney general prospects to three: Wood, 49, a registered Democrat appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan to U.S. District Court in New York in 1988; CharleC. Ruff, 53, a veteran Washington criminal prosecutor and defense attorney; and former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, 52, an early Clinton backer and friend from the days when both were governors.
Wood "has bubbled to the top of the list" since her meeting with Clinton last Friday, said a source close to the President. "She's a judge, a woman, a person close to the President's age," the source said. "All of those things help." In addition, the source added, "she doesn't appear to bring any obvious controversy to the job, which everyone wants to avoid."
So far, the only opposition to Wood that has surfaced has come from liberals who have raised questions about statements she made when nominated by Reagan. Wood questioned the validity of "judicial activism," repeating language used by many other Reagan-era appointees that some liberal activists view as suspect.
But the fact that Wood has the backing of some prominent, politically liberal friends of Clinton's--including New York attorney and political activist Susan Thomases--may reduce the ability of liberal groups to oppose her. And having just gone through a week of attack by conservatives over the issue of gays in the military, Clinton might gain some political benefit by naming an attorney general that liberal activists disapprove of.
Appointing Wood would likely appease women's groups, who contend that Clinton has too few women in his Cabinet.
Wood captured national attention, while generating some controversy, in sentencing former junk bond king Michael Milken in 1990. She initially sentenced him to 10 years in prison, by far the harshest sentence imposed in a chain of Wall Street scandals during the late 1980s. She declared that the stiff sentence would make an example of Milken, who had pleaded guilty to six felony securities law violations.
Later, Wood added to the controversy by reducing Milken's sentence to two years, citing his "cooperation" with federal prosecutors. Critics contended that his cooperation was minimal. Milken recently was released to a halfway house in Hollywood, and Thursday he was allowed to go home to finish out his sentence under a home-confinement program. His sentence is up March 2.
Wood is a Harvard Law School graduate who specialized in antitrust law at the New York firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae before being appointed to the bench.
Wood is the daughter of an Army officer who spent much of his career writing speeches for generals. She spent long stretches of her childhood in Europe, especially France. At age 17 she spoke French more fluently than English, she recalled in a 1990 interview.
Wood's unusual first name was picked by her mother, who searched for a name while Wood's father was away fighting in World War II. She said that her mother found it in an atlas. Kimba is a small town near the Spencer Gulf in South Australia.
In the 1990 interview, Wood spoke modestly about gaining expertise in the diverse areas of law that federal judges face. In addition to criminal cases, federal judges routinely rule in matters involving complicated commercial, antitrust, patent, trademark and copyright disputes and on anti-discrimination statutes and basic constitutional questions.