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THORNBURGH MADE A DIFFERENCE

The departure from the Bush Cabinet of Attorney General Richard Thornburgh so that he can run for the Senate from his home state of Pennsylvania is getting mixed reviews. But there is no question that the Justice Department fared better under his leadership than it did under his predecessor, Edwin Meese III.

Appointed in 1988 in the waning days of the Reagan administration, Thornburgh - a former Pennsylvania governor praised for his management abilities - was welcomed by those who said he would restore respectability to the badly tarnished Justice Department following Meese's stormy tenure. To a great extent he has done that.Although Thornburgh's prickly, imperious manner won him enemies on Capitol Hill, he still is credited with much-improved relations with Congress.

Some of his early appointments drew criticism. His first choice for civil rights chief was rejected as unqualified by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Four aides Thornburgh brought from Pennsylvania eventually left their positions under a cloud.

Still, he is credited with winning more international cooperation in the war on illegal drugs. Thornburgh can also claim credit for a nearly 40 percent increase in the Justice Department's budget to hire additional prosecutors and federal law enforcement agents.

Although he responded slowly to the savings and loan scandal, he finally appointed a coordinator to spearhead those prosecutions which have netted more than 500 convictions.

Conservatives praise Thornburgh for carrying on the Reagan administration legacy in civil rights and judicial selection.

Most frequently, Thornburgh has been criticized for partisanship which some legal observers think is unseemly in an attorney general. For example, he has gotten involved in abortion and civil rights debates.

However, the final and most telling judgment of Thornburgh's work is the most important: He left the Justice Department a stronger, more effective place than he found it.