Three weeks ago, Justice Department officials settled on a "talking point" to rebut the chorus of Democratic accusations that the Bush administration had wrongly injected politics into law enforcement when it dismissed eight U.S. attorneys.
Why not focus on the Clinton administration's having "fired all 93 U.S. attorneys" when Janet Reno became attorney general in March 1993? The idea was introduced in a memo from a Justice Department spokeswoman.
The message has been effective. What's followed has been a surge of complaints on blogs and talk radio that it was the Clinton administration that first politicized the Justice Department.
The facts, it turns out, are more complicated.
In a March 4 memo titled "Draft Talking Points," Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos asked, "The [White House] is under the impression that we did not remove all the Clinton [U.S. attorneys] in 2001 like he did when he took office. Is that true?"
That is mostly true, replied D. Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. "Clinton fired all Bush [U.S. attorneys] in one fell swoop. We fired all Clinton [U.S. attorneys] but staggered it out more and permitted some to stay on a few months," he said.
A few minutes later, Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty replied to the same memo.
"On the issue of Clinton [U.S. attorneys], we called each one and had them give us a timeframe. Most were gone by late April. In contrast, Clinton [Justice Department] told all but a dozen in early March to be gone immediately," McNulty said.
The difference appears minor. Both McNulty and Sampson acknowledged that the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, brought in a new slate of U.S. attorneys within a few months of taking office.
But historical data compiled by the Senate show the pattern going back to President Reagan.
Reagan replaced 89 of the 93 U.S. attorneys in his first two years in office. President Clinton had 89 new U.S. attorneys in his first two years, and President Bush had 88 new U.S. attorneys in his first two years.
In a similar vein, the Justice Department recently supplied Congress with a district-by-district listing of U.S. attorneys who served prior to the Bush administration.
The list shows that in 1981, Reagan's first year in office, 71 of 93 districts had new U.S. attorneys. In 1993, Clinton's first year, 80 of 93 districts had new U.S. attorneys.
Nonetheless, the idea that Clinton and Reno broke with precedent and fired all U.S. attorneys upon taking office has played a key role in the public debate in recent weeks. In conservative media and on talk radio, Reno's abrupt firing of all the U.S. attorneys had been described as extreme and unprecedented.
Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania's attorney general, knows the story firsthand.
"I am the one who took the message," he said in an interview Wednesday.
In 1993, he was the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh and the liaison between the outgoing George H.W. Bush administration and the incoming Clinton administration. "We had been asking them for months: 'When do you want our resignations?' " he said.
The answer came in a meeting with Webster Hubbell, the associate attorney general, in mid-March. "He said, 'I have good news and bad news. The good news is the attorney general wants you to stay until your successor is confirmed. The bad news is she wants your resignations by the end of the week,' " Corbett said.
He said the demand for resignations by the week's end was surprising.
"We knew this was coming, but it broke with tradition to do it this way," he said. "It didn't make for a smooth transition. By the end of that week, they had backed off a bit. Over the course of the next few months, they made the changes. It was how the message was delivered more than what actually occurred."
Despite Reno's request for all of their resignations, some U.S. attorneys stayed on the job for several more months.
In Los Angeles, for example, Terree A. Bowers, a Republican, became the interim U.S. attorney in 1992, and he served through 1993, Clinton's first year in office.
Nora Manella, Clinton's choice for the post, took over in 1994.
In Pittsburgh, Corbett says he stayed in office until August, when a new Clinton appointee won confirmation.
In New Jersey, Michael Chertoff, a 1990 appointee of President George H.W. Bush, continued into the Clinton administration before leaving in 1994. He is now the Homeland Security secretary.
In western Michigan, John Smietanka, a Reagan appointee, served until the beginning of 1994. "I knew I would be resigning, but I wasn't sure of the timing. I ended up serving for one year of the Clinton administration," he said.
His predecessor, James S. Brady, served as U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., during the Carter administration.
"When Carter lost in November of 1980, I resigned," said Brady, who later became president of the National Assn. of Former U.S. Attorneys. "Nobody asked me, but that's the tradition of the office. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, and when a new administration comes in, everybody knows you will have a new U.S. attorney."
There have been local exceptions to this rule.
In New York, former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- a Democrat who had served in Republican administrations -- persuaded several presidents to allow U.S. attorneys to continue in office after a change of administrations.
In Manhattan, for example, Robert Fiske, a President Ford appointee in 1976, served throughout the Carter administration.
And a Carter appointee, John S. Martin, served during the first years of the Reagan administration.
Many former U.S. attorneys draw a sharp distinction between the political nature of the appointment and the apolitical role of law enforcement.
"The process of selection is political, but once you are there, you can't be political," said Daniel French, who was a Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney in Syracuse, N.Y.
"I don't think there is anything wrong with [former White House Counsel] Harriet Miers saying, 'We want all new people in office.' "
But he said the administration would cross the line if it interfered in a politically sensitive prosecution.
Tom Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney from Minnesota who served under Bush -- as well as in the elder Bush's administration -- said a White House move to fire a large number of U.S. attorneys was quite different from replacing the appointees of a previous administration.
"In my opinion, it is not comparable," said Heffelfinger, a Republican who resigned voluntarily from his Justice Department post last year.
"When you have a transition between presidents -- especially presidents of different parties -- a U.S. attorney anticipates that you will be replaced in due course. But the unwritten, No. 1 rule at [the Justice Department] is that once you become a U.S. attorney you have to leave politics at the door," he said.
Democrats in the House and Senate say they intend to press ahead with their investigation to determine whether partisan politics played a role in the dismissal of the eight U.S. attorneys.
For their part, Republican leaders counter that politics is driving the investigation.
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), the GOP party chairman, sent out a message Wednesday accusing Democrats of "feigning outrage" over the Justice Department's actions.
"There is no question that U.S. attorneys, like all political appointees, serve at the pleasure of the president," Martinez said. "That was true when Bill Clinton's Justice Department replaced all 93 U.S. attorneys, and it remains true today."
Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.