WASHINGTON — In his first contact with the press since being elevated from relative obscurity to national attention Friday, William Steele Sessions relished a reporter's description of him as "a West Texas tough guy."
But the FBI director-designate quickly quipped that "I don't wear a gun belt and I don't have any cowboy boots to my name."
The banter provided a telling exchange that showed how the Republican federal judge can at once maintain his hard-line courtroom stands and appeal to judicial observers from the other end of the political spectrum.
His well-earned reputation as a law-and-order conservative has not stemmed the flow of high praise from the other ideological extreme, where his commitment to fairness has been pointedly noted. Despite his political leanings, he has ruled in favor of civil rights plaintiffs in major cases and has not been afraid to take on powerful members of the Texas Establishment.
"I dare say we probably wouldn't agree on a single political issue, but I probably would have rather tried a case in his court than any judge I felt a kinship with ideologically," said Gerald H. Goldstein of San Antonio, general counsel of the Texas Civil Liberties Union.
To Sessions, his steely reputation is the product of a career devoted to hard work, not the hard right. "If I'm a West Texas tough guy, it's simply because we've dealt with difficult problems . . . drug and immigration problems. Whether you are a judge or whether you are involved in prosecution or defense, these are very difficult times," he said.
And the times are not likely to get much easier if he is confirmed as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But no one is more aware of this than Sessions.
While claiming that he has "a wealth of ignorance about running the FBI," he demonstrated Friday that he appreciates the revolutionary changes the bureau has undergone since he left Washington in 1971 and the challenges he faces in "turf wars" and other problems within the agency.
In an unusually straightforward discussion for a nominee facing Senate confirmation, the 57-year-old Sessions was not shy about taking the FBI job at a time when his superior, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, is being investigated by two independent counsels staffed with FBI agents.
The attorney general's preliminary inquiry into the Iran- contra affair has been denounced as incompetent and has led to suspicion that he intentionally avoided vigorous pursuit of leads that could have implicated top Administration officials.
When asked if this would be a particularly difficult time to take over the FBI, Sessions replied: "I would think not. It's the natural function in a free society--people seeking to see what's going on in their government." With Meese standing beside him, Sessions added: "Although it's awkward many times, that's the stuff of which freedom is made and I believe in it. I think we're all answerable."
Sessions took note of another issue directly involving Meese that many regard as the FBI's biggest problem--his decision not to fully merge the Drug Enforcement Administration into the FBI, often leading to rivalries in the field between the two agencies.
Handling the sensitive issue with diplomatic deftness, Sessions noted that "every federal judge has dealt with the problems" of competition between law enforcement agencies and he said it is "quite natural" when you have vigorous enforcement to have turf battles.
Most Effective Tool
His reputation for fairness--the quality that has gained him such wide respect--may be the most effective tool he has in dealing with the problems at the FBI.
In his meeting with reporters Friday, he stressed a strong commitment to protecting citizens' constitutional rights. "I'm very aware, keenly aware, of Fourth, Fifth, First, Sixth Amendment rights," he said. "These are the things judges are made of."
Moreover, he is regarded highly for judicial management skills that can be applied to the FBI post. Interviews of lawyers who have practiced before Sessions, judges who serve alongside him and Justice Department veterans who remember his work portray him as a take-charge jurist who insists on "personal accountability."
He is especially tough when sentencing those convicted of crimes that challenge the "integrity of the process," such as perjury or obstruction of justice.
No Doubt He's in Charge
In the courtroom, he invites and listens to the advice of others but leaves no doubt that he is in charge of any operation he manages.
"He's tough on lawyers, and that's good for the bureau, because they'll know immediately that's he's the boss," said a key staff member of a congressional oversight committee who has monitored the FBI for a decade.
Another quality regarded as a plus in the FBI directorship is Sessions' knack for solving difficult administrative problems. "His experience in the area of court administration is . . . regarded as the best in the judicial branch of the government," said a longtime judicial aide.
Outside the courtroom, Sessions has a reputation for unpretentious informality in private that is in sharp contrast with his no-nonsense formal image as a jurist.
Sessions was described by friends and associates as a devoted outdoorsman and sometime mountain climber who keeps a book about Texas' rugged Guadalupe Mountains next to a volume about Abraham Lincoln.