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Barr Takes Charge at Justice Dept.

By Sharon LaFraniere
The Washington Post


The rap on William P. Barr before he became attorney general was that he had too low a profile. Certainly no one would accuse him of that now.Barr has moved from working behind the scenes to setting the scenes in three months since he took office. Now the question is not if he can handle the spotlight, but what motivates him.

Some former and current Justice Department officials interpret Barr's recent string of "initiatives" on violent crime and illegal immigration as the acts of a good political soldier trying to help his boss. Others are delighted to discover the department with a clearer agenda after years of stupor and friction.

The debate has sharpened since Barr's announcement late last month that the department would broaden its antitrust power in order to gain what he called "a useful tool" against foreign companies that restrict U.S. exports. Antitrust chiefs from two previous administrations said Barr overstated how useful the new policy will be, while attorneys with an American Bar Association antitrust task force said Barr rightly reclaimed a tool the Reagan administration tossed aside.

"(Are his actions) politically motivated? (Or) self-serving? I'm asking myself those same questions," said one key Justice Department official who likes Barr. "I think it's just too early to decide."

Barr, 41, began his tenure in late November with one big advantage and one big disadvantage. The advantage was Dick Thornburgh, who had appointed Barr deputy attorney general in May 1990. "Such a bad act, Barr can't help but look good," said one department official.

Thornburgh, who ran the Justice Department for three years ending last August, was the type of official who looked unnatural without his suit jacket. Barr, boyish and slightly pudgy, looks uncomfortable in a suit, as if someone had dressed him up against his will.

Thornburgh seemed forced and tight-lipped even when he wanted to appear relaxed; Barr is comfortable sharing insights sharpened by a keen sense of the absurd.

Thornburgh liked memos to correct with his red pen; Barr likes head-on discussions with a big circle of advisers. Thornburgh seemed wary of change; Barr is willing to break with the past.

Barr's big disadvantage is President Bush's campaign. With Bush seemingly unnerved by Patrick J. Buchanan's challenge, anything Barr does is instantly suspect as a political gesture at a time when he needs to act to establish himself.

"If I were doing nothing, people would say I was a do-nothing caretaker," Barr said in an interview last week.

Much of what Barr has done since his confirmation seems to benefit the administration politically. He pleased conservatives by reversing policy and offering Justice Department help to states that want to get out from under court-ordered prison-population caps. His decision to allow the department to pursue antitrust investigations of arrangements that restrict U.S. exports without harming American consumers made the administration look tough against Japan.