WASHINGTON — Even as he publicly defended his Supreme Court nominee, President Reagan gave a Cabinet member permission Friday to ask Douglas H. Ginsburg to withdraw from consideration because he had used marijuana.
Ginsburg was noncommittal when Education Secretary William J. Bennett told him that the fight was "not winnable" and that staying in "hurts the President," according to Bennett's spokesman, Loye Miller.
Miller said Bennett told Reagan on Friday afternoon that it was essential that the nomination be withdrawn and that he was willing to give Ginsburg the message.
"Do what you think is right," Miller quoted Reagan as responding.
A senior White House official later confirmed the account and said it would be best if Ginsburg stepped aside because it was a "hopeless cause."
Earlier Friday, Reagan rejected senators' suggestions that he withdraw the nomination and said Ginsburg's admission of drug use in the 1960s and 1970s didn't make him "an addict." Reagan said he was confident the nation would show compassion to a man who "erred in his youth."
According to Miller's account, Bennett called Ginsburg about 4 p.m., about an hour after speaking to Reagan, and told the judge that continuing to seek the seat was "not right."
He said Ginsburg would be able to withdraw "gracefully" now but would not be able to do so later, Miller said.
Ginsburg was noncommittal because he had been to the White House earlier and received encouragement, Miller said.
A senior White House official confirmed Miller's account Friday night, saying that Bennett and a number of other conservatives had concluded that "this is a hopeless cause and damaging to the President."
"I don't think any major conservative organization is going to be able to generate any grass-roots support for him. It would be best for him to step aside and let us get on with naming another nominee," the official said.
And although Ginsburg "was not persuaded" by Bennett's call, the official said, "something needs to happen in the next 72 hours."
'Worst of All Worlds'
"The worst of all worlds is that he hangs in there," the official said.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged that Bennett had talked to the President but added, "I don't know what he said."
"We don't discuss private phone calls and we won't in this case," Fitzwater said.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department tried to quell talk that Ginsburg might have lied about past marijuana use when applying for federal jobs.
The department issued a statement late in the day, saying the FBI in its background checks of Ginsburg for various government jobs apparently never asked him whether he had used drugs.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Ginsburg had told senators he had used the illegal drug as recently as 1979, while a Harvard Law School professor. And criticism from conservative senators mounted.
In addition, Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama said Ginsburg's admission raised questions of possible perjury if the nominee had lied about drug use on previous government documents.
In response, Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland said that "I have made a vigorous effort today to find out whether Douglas Ginsburg was ever asked about drug use, whether on employment forms related to government service or in interviews conducted by the FBI or other Justice Department and White House officials.
No Evidence Found
"I have been unable to find any evidence that any such questions were asked," Eastland said at a news conference.
The closest Ginsburg came to being asked about drugs, according to Eastland, was when he was nominated for the federal appeals court in 1986. At that time, one of the questions in a Justice Department questionnaire was whether there had been "anything in your personal life which you feel, if known, may be of embarrassment to the Administration."
Another question asked at that time was whether he had ever been treated for or had any problem associated with consumption of alcoholic beverages or any form of drug dependency.
Eastland said that Ginsburg answered both questions but he declined to give the answers, saying they were "confidential."
Defended by Meese
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, who heads the Justice Department, was instrumental in bringing about Ginsburg's nomination and has defended him since his drug admission.
Reagan appeared to be paying little attention to the advice of some key senators that the nomination be reconsidered. Such suggestions came from Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd and from several Republicans who had been expected to lead the charge for confirmation.
The President, asked whether the 41-year-old federal appellate judge could be confirmed, said, "If there's any justice in Washington, he can."
Ginsburg acknowledged Thursday that he used marijuana once in the 1960s and several times in the 1970s, an admission that came after reporters sought his comment on drug use allegations.
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