In one of his few felicitous personnel choices, Ronald Reagan produced Education Secretary William J. Bennett as the hit man for the Ginsburg nomination. Everyone knew Douglas H. Ginsburg had to go as soon as National Public Radio broadcast that the judge, like so many of his generation, had used pot a time or two.
Bennett is big, loud and vociferously antidrug. What made him perfect for the job was that he volunteered for it. He called the president and offered to hand Ginsburg the ace of spades.
The deed was done last Friday, but it was not a covert operation. Through his spokesman, Loye Miller, Bennett let the world know who had let out the contract. Did Bennett tell the news media because he was bragging? (He is not a diffident man.) Or was he anxious to publicize it so that Ginsburg would not be able to deny he was being pressured and hang in, a la Robert H. Bork?
Neither, says spokesman Miller. He did it because the White House leaked the story of the Bennett-to-Reagan call within 20 minutes of its being made. Miller first received an inquiry from a Boston radio station, then from Time magazine, and finally, as evening news deadlines approached, from the networks. Bennett authorized release of his conversation with the president.
The president had told him to "do what you think is right," which is not exactly an order to cease and desist. Bennett told Ginsburg that the controversy was "embarrassing the president." Ginsburg got the message.
The Saturday papers naturally reported this state of affairs, which was of special interest because at the time the president was vowing to stand by his man. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters that the Bennett story was "inaccurate." He could not tell them what the president did say; but he was absolutely sure about what the president did not say, he said.
Reagan's way of divesting himself of embarrassing appointees is to let someone else fire them and then claim it's a crying shame. He heard the hoots of suppressed laughter from the left, which was further diverted by the sight of unforgiving right-wingers such as Sen. Steve Symms (R-Idaho) calling for more tolerance of youthful error. He knew that the new "lynch mob" -- his designation of all who opposed the Bork nomination -- consisted of conservative senators from his own party.
Bennett's account of being given the go-ahead interferes with Reagan's view of himself as a kindly employer who backs up his own. So it was perhaps inevitable that when asked about what happened as he toured a United Way exhibition, Reagan would say that "someone" should be embarrassed. He did not say who, indicating, as usual, that it wasn't he.
Attorney General Edwin Meese III was, like his principal, taking no blame. Although he fought like a steer for Ginsburg after the acceptable Judge Anthony M. Kennedy was all but chosen, Meese decided that he really didn't know Ginsburg so well after all. "He was the president's candidate," said Meese.
The Ginsburg story, which should have died down by now or petered out into earnest discussions of whether all former grass-users should be disqualified from great office, is now going into overtime, with most missing the point.
Pot or no pot, Ginsburg was doomed. His nomination was instantly spotted in the Senate as Reagan's revenge for the rejection of Robert Bork, a frivolous bid for Reaganesque echoes from the bench for maybe 40 years.
Reagan was lucky. He could have had a disaster instead of merely an embarrassment. Ginsburg could not have survived serious Senate scrutiny. The combination of his liberated life style and his bizarre conservatism would have downed him right and left.
As a budget official passing on safety regulations, he seriously suggested applying a cost-benefit analysis. Would he put a dollar value on human life? Can you imagine some puckish senator asking, "Look, I have asthma and flat feet; how much would I have to discount for that?" He was less than frank about the number of his court appearances. His idea of pro bono legal work was that his antiregulation work constituted charity. "The effort to eliminate unnecessary economic regulation . . . is, in my view, preeminently intended to restore the principle of equal justice under law where it has been driven out by special interests with disproportionate influence over the apparatus of state."
The fact is, he never would have made it. The discovery of the smoking dope was a real break for Reagan, making it unnecessary to tell Ginsburg later that he would not do.
Reagan is now free to name Kennedy, who, by all accounts, could fill the chair vacated by Lewis F. Powell Jr.
But is he grateful that Ginsburg is gone? No, he is whining that he didn't do it.