WASHINGTON — The man President Reagan has chosen to replace Edwin Meese III as attorney general appears to have everything needed to win quick approval from the Senate and to restore the Justice Department's now-clouded image, acquaintances and former colleagues said Monday.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh, 55, is a Republican moderate who has spent almost two decades as a lawyer and nationally known politician and has emerged scandal-free--and with high marks from both parties.
A former U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania and later an assistant attorney general during the Gerald R. Ford Administration, Thornburgh for several weeks was the Jimmy Carter Administration's second-highest-ranking Justice official.
Unable to decide immediately on whom to name to the department's No. 2 slot after Carter was elected, Carter's attorney general-designate, Griffin B. Bell, was so impressed with Thornburgh that he asked him to stay on as his acting deputy attorney general while he searched for a Democratic successor. For the first few hours of the Carter Administration, before Bell took office, Thornburgh actually was the highest-ranking official in the department.
Bell on Monday was ecstatic about the news that Thornburgh was about to be nominated.
"There's not one breath of scandal to him; no one's ever questioned his integrity," Bell said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. "He knows the department, and that's very important. We ought to consider ourselves all lucky that he'll be the attorney general."
The attorney general's slot is at least the third offer for high office that Thornburgh has received from the Reagan Administration. In 1987, he turned down a bid to become director of the FBI to replace William H. Webster, who was named director of the CIA. Before that, he had declined offers to be director of the Agency for International Development and secretary of health and human services.
Attacked Crime, Drugs
A graduate of Yale University and the University of Pittsburgh Law School, Thornburgh first attracted attention in Washington during his years as U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1975, when he launched attacks on organized crime, drug-trafficking and pornography. President Ford named him to head the Justice Department's criminal division in 1975.
Thornburgh served as governor of Pennsylvania for two consecutive terms.
Commenting on Thornburgh's reputation for integrity, a former aide recalled that the governor once forced one of his Cabinet members to resign because the man had been caught shoplifting.
Since 1987, Thornburgh has been practicing law and has served part time as director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Gary Orren, a professor who has known Thornburgh at the Kennedy School, rates him as "a very effective, competent manager . . . a coalition builder--not an ideologue in any sense."
His tenure at the Kennedy School proved to be "a very popular appointment," Orren said in a telephone interview Monday night.
Staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.