So Long, Lani

Maybe she didn't understand the code. For days, Clinton administration officials had been sending none-too-subtle signals to University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier to withdraw her nomination to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. First, White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos issued a conspicuously lukewarm endorsement to reporters. Then the president himself said that, while he still backed Guinier, he might have to defer to senators who had "reservations" about her appointment. And finally, Howard Paster, President Clinton's chief of congressional liaison, flatly told Guinier she didn't have the votes in the Senate.

But Guinier defied tradition-and the White House-by going public with her battle for the job. She appeared on ABC's "Nightline" to allay the administration's doubts and answer conservative critics who, accurately or not, had depicted her as an extremist and a "quota queen." It was already too late. Before Guinier could utter a word, Ted Koppel brandished a front-page headline from the next morning's New York Times reporting that the White House was giving up. She heard it directly from Clinton the next day. The president praised her "high integrity, great intellect [and] strong character" but said he disagreed fundamentally with some of her scholarly writings on civil-rights law. And then, with obvious regret, Clinton withdrew her nomination.

Why did he pick Guinier in the first place? The answer is friendship: Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have known Lani Guinier since they all attended Yale Law School together in the 1970s, and the president seems to have had her in mind for the civil-rights job almost from the time he was elected. Guinier is a recognized expert on civil-rights law and an able litigator. Although her views had been the subject of controversy for weeks, Clinton said he hadn't read her journal articles until the day he actually dumped her. To Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the whole episode suggested yet another breakdown by the White House staff. "If they didn't know [about her writings], they did a bum job of review," Lieberman said. "If they did know, and didn't stop the nomination, their judgment is off." An aide to a Democratic senator saw it differently. "If anybody screwed this up," he said, "it's Clinton. He wanted to nominate his friend."

The president, of course, cannot be blamed for not reading the work of a third-tier agency nominee-that's what his staff is supposed to do. In fact, the White House was well aware of the controversy, although it apparently misjudged its seriousness. Administration lawyers read Guinier's articles and, NEWSWEEK has learned, even sent them to outside experts for an "objective" appraisal. "This was not a failure to review her," said a senior official at the Justice Department. Some White House aides expressed concern before Guinier was nominated April 29. But others attacked the naysayers for trying to protect their old bosses in the Senate, who were desperate to avoid a controversial vote. In the end, White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, who is blamed for not spotting Zoe Baird's nanny problem, decided not to hold up Guinier's nomination even after he was made aware of these potential problems. "Basically [Clinton] was told that she had written some articles, but they wouldn't pose a problem," one White House aide says. Says another: "Nobody really wanted to go to the president and tell him there was a problem with his friend."

But the tide was already turning. Conservatives, sensing the opportunity to avenge the 1987 defeat of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, laid the groundwork for "Borking" Guinier with her own words. Clinton's staff paid little attention to a pair of op-ed articles in The Wall Street Journal lambasting Guinier as having extremist views on racial preferences. Other columnists joined in, and by the middle of May, the view of Lani Guinier as a radical leftist had hardened beyond repair. "Where was the truth squad?" grouses one Senate staffer. "Why wasn't someone at the White House counterpunching?"

'Big lies': Guinier and her supporters maintain that her views have been misinterpreted-although even she concedes that her articles are so dense and "ponderous" that it is often difficult to know precisely what she means. But even moderate Democrats were offended by her contention that the best way to combat racial discrimination is with "a result-oriented inquiry, in which roughly equal outcomes, not merely an apparently fair process, are the goals." To many in Congress, these are euphemisms for quotas. Guinier has also criticized the federal government's tactics to enhance minority voting rights as ineffective. She supports so-called "cumulative voting" arrangements to increase the number of elected black officials and a "minority veto" to put black officeholders on a more equal footing with whites. Most damaging of all, she seems to question whether black politicians who are elected with majority-white support, like Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, are really "authentic" black leaders.

Caught napping, the White House woke up too late. In late May, Paster sent a letter to all senators urging them to reject the "big lies" that were circulating about Guinier. White House aides escorted Guinier on courtesy calls to members of the Judiciary Committee. Even so, sources said there were only four likely votes on the Judiciary Committee: Massachusetts' Ted Kennedy, Ohio's Howard Metzenbaum, and Paul Simon and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois. None of the four were willing to support Guinier publicly. Kennedy briefly considered a "Dear Colleague" letter but decided against it when he realized the gesture would be counterproductive. The word from committee chairman Joe Biden one source said, was "very grim."

Guinier got the bad news late Wednesday in the building where she had hoped to work-at the Justice Department, in Attorney General Janet Reno's fifth-floor conference room. With Reno present, Paster and White House Deputy Communications Director Ricki Seidman told Guinier and her team of supporters that the votes simply weren't there. It was a "frank" meeting and a "strong signal," one participant told NEWSWEEK. Guinier wanted a confirmation hearing anyway-a political showdown that, to nervous members of the Judiciary Committee, could well become a racially tinged replay of the Bork confirmation hearings. Reno, who continued to insist that Guinier was "the best possible nominee" even after Clinton announced that he was dropping the nomination, wanted to fight as well-once again appearing to be tougher and less fickle than her boss.

It all ended, ignominiously, the next day. Pressed by Vice President Al Gore to read Guinier's articles, Clinton finally did so-and felt himself compelled to crush the hopes of a long-time friend. Guinier said she was "greatly disappointed" but continued "to respect the president." Clinton, according to The New York Times, described the fiasco as the worst day of his presidency-but Guinier, he said with perfect accuracy, had taken it like a champ.