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William Barr : A 'Caretaker' Attorney General Proves Agenda-Setting Conservative

June 21, 1992|Ronald J. Ostrow | Ronald J. Ostrow has covered the Justice Department since 1966 for The Times

WASHINGTON — In seven months as U.S. attorney general, William P. Barr has converted the Justice Department into an agenda-setting agency from a reactive institution, focusing on cutting-edge issues high on many Americans' minds. These include violent crime, gangs, health-care fraud, tighter immigration controls and competition-stifling foreign cartels. He had a running start, serving as deputy to Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh for a year and a half and quieting the bitterness that marked Thornburgh's management style.

Expectations were that Barr would be a caretaker during an election year, making few waves. Instead, one of his programs--weeding out criminal elements in a community and then seeding with social reform--has been elevated to a leading domestic policy. He does not avoid controversy, most noteworthy being the opinion he wrote, in 1989, saying there was nothing illegal about U.S. agents seizing fugitives overseas without the host country's permission. When the Supreme Court recently upheld this, Barr gave the State Department and White House fits in hailing the ruling, while Mexico writhed.

Barr was 41 when he took over the nation's top law job. During the modern era, only a President's brother and the son of a Supreme Court justice managed to assume the nation's top law post when that young. Barr, a bookish-looking son of educators who speaks with a muted New York accent, brought no special credentials. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Chinese studies and picked up his law degree at night school while working at the CIA.

He landed this powerful job through a combination of genuine smarts, his effectiveness as a idea-generating conservative and his winning way with people, especially those on the other side of policy arguments. But Barr also happened to be in the right place at the right time.

He has stumbled along the way: Taking part in a hyped press conference on gangs that resurrected a long-standing investigation, for example. His training as a lawyer gives him difficulty in responding to questions with short answers. But overall, he has won plus marks inside the Administration and has managed to re-establish civilized relations with Senate and House overseers.

Barr takes his favorite form of relaxation--playing the bagpipes--seriously. He takes pride in his reputation for veracity, but sometimes risks it--claiming, for example, that his wife and three daughters enjoy the pipe-playing.

Question: More than any attorney general since Elliot Richardson nearly 20 years ago, you came into office with a specific agenda. Have the developments in Los Angeles and the possibility of urban unrest across the country changed your priorities?

Answer: Not at all. In fact, I think the riot in Los Angeles underscored the importance of those priorities.

Q: You don't find yourself making any shifts?

A: No. Violent crime is a high priority, the role of gangs, the problem we have in the juvenile justice system. These are things that obviously were related to the riots in Los Angeles and the whole problem we have in the inner cities. The importance of prosecuting the war on drugs, similarly, I think, is responsive to one of the real problems we have in our cities in the United States. Even in the civil-rights area, where one of my chief priorities has been in fair housing and in lending practices and mortgage practices, that's very important to rehabilitate in the inner cities. The problem of immigration enforcement--making sure we have a fair set of rules and then enforce them--I think that's certainly relevant to the problems we're seeing in Los Angeles.

Q: Is the civil unrest in Los Angeles an aberration--one city with its particular pressures, perhaps police department style and a chief immune from the normal political process? Or is it symptomatic of urban unrest throughout the nation?

A: I wouldn't want to predict similar incidents of urban unrest throughout the nation. I think the problems in the inner cities are nationwide. There is, in fact, frustration and, in some segments of our population, a certain hopelessness over circumstances. I think there was anger and frustration over the verdict in the Rodney King incident that certainly wasn't limited to Los Angeles, but I do think that there were a lot of unique circumstances in Los Angeles that came together in a way that added to the combustibility of the post-verdict hours and contributed to the intensity and the scale of the violence in Los Angeles.

Q: On the Rodney King investigation, we're hearing it's taking longer than first anticipated and it will be not until at least August that anything is presented to the grand jury or there's any kind of decision. Is this timetable on the mark?

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