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LET RENO DO HER JOB

When Bill Clinton left her twisting in the wind last winter, Janet Reno must have been tempted to tell him to stuff the attorney general's job, load her pickup truck and go backpacking.

After all, there were signals Clinton & Co. were impatient with Reno. Too feisty, too detached, too independent.

Surely the prez could find a No. 1 law person more malleable -- you know, a friendly team player.

Reno stubbornly hung tough and Clinton left her in charge of the Justice Department. It was the right call: Reno had shown rock-bound integrity; she is a star of an administration riddled with legal trouble.

She may have second thoughts -- Clinton too -- now that Reno's in the eye of a political hurricane. Republicans are so frothing mad that Reno won't sic special prosecutors on Clinton and Al Gore, they'd love to roust her back to Miami.

Well, here's one voice in the storm that says Reno's still the right person to call shots at Justice -- cool, reasoned, flat-out honest. OK, she blew the call on Waco. Either way her decisions go on Clinton and Gore investigations, I'd trust her.

Sure, pressure on Reno is extraordinarily intense. I don't remember an attorney general under such fierce crossfire since Richard Nixon was changing A.G.'s faster than George Steinbrenner dumps managers.

Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., says scornfully, "She's done things that would make John Mitchell blush."

That's a measure of Republican hyperbolic frenzy, since Mitchell went to the hoosegow for Watergate crimes. Democrats? They've ducked the Reno typhoon.

The ferocious appetite of Republicans to put independent counsels on the trail of Clinton/Gore '96 campaign misdeeds is easy to read. That would trap Clinton in damage control, cripple Gore's image and make the Republicans' road smoother in 1998 and 2000.

But that's political bedlam. Can we lower the bombast and zero in on Reno's problem -- do those fund-raising phone calls Gore, and perhaps Clinton, made from the White House merit independent counsels?

So far Reno's handled it right. When she learned she'd been blind-sided by staff and FBI incompetence -- some money Gore raised went for campaign "hard money" -- she called a 30-day review. When White House logs hinted at Clinton calls, she set a clock ticking on the prez.

Despite critics' brickbats (a New York Times editorial blasting her for "inexcusable lassitude" and "timid baby steps"), Reno's played it by the book. Now firebrands are betting Reno will be forced to tap independent counsels for Clinton and Gore.

"I honestly think she has no choice," says Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., House Judiciary chairman. And Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Senate's lawyerly guru, says, "I think it's inevitable."

Maybe, maybe not.

Under Reno's guidelines, she doesn't have to name a special counsel if she finds, under normal circumstances, Justice Department lawyers wouldn't chase a violation. The 1893 law against "receiving or soliciting any contribution in any government room or building" is so vague, fustian and ancient, it's as laughable as a ban on sidewalk spitting.

Throw in other mind-numbing legalisms: Did Gore know some telemarketing dough was skimmed for hard money? If Clinton dialed for dollars did he call from his White House residence?

"It's much more important that we reform campaign finances than wrestle with these fine legal issues and try to convict the vice-president or president," says Specter.

Amen. But the Washington gotcha game -- will Reno nail the veep and prez? -- is cheaper sport than cleaning up the money mess.

My hunch is that Reno will nail Gore on narrow changes and let Clinton off the hook. Either way, I'd trust her hard-headed integrity.

Both sides are lucky to have Janet Reno in the eye of the hurricane.

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