“Selfless” is a word one does not hear often in Washington, but it accurately describes Ed Meese. His adult life has encompassed a series of jobs in which public service and policy fulfillment — not riches or glory — were his goals. He came by this naturally, for he grew up thinking of public service as a calling.
His grandfather, the first Edwin Meese, was a councilman and city treasurer in Oakland, Calif. His father, Edwin Meese Jr., held the nonpartisan elected office of Alameda County Tax Collector for 24 years (twice a year I sent property tax checks made out to him). Edwin Meese III and his three brothers grew up in a family where civic-mindedness, public service, patriotism, self-reliance and religious devotion were the fabric of everyday life.
Valedictorian of his high school graduating class, Ed won a scholarship to Yale. There he exhibited a characteristic seen at every stage in his career: He was involved in several activities at once, yet managed to find time for all of them.
Lee Edwards, a seasoned biographer, lets the facts speak for themselves. He takes us throughMr. Meese’s career, the climax being his time as U.S. Attorney General (extended by his positions since: the Heritage Foundation’s Ronald Reagan Fellow in Public Policy and the Hoover Institution’s Distinguished Visiting Fellow).
His first job after college and Army service was deputy district attorney in Alameda County. He and his high school sweetheart, Ursula Herrick, were married in 1959. In September 1964, student “activists,” demanding abolition of grades and a role in governing the University of California at Berkeley, occupied the chancellor’s office. Mr. Meese, point man for the DA’s office, recommended arresting the occupiers lest there be “another mob scene, even bigger, the next day.”
When newly electedGov. Ronald Reagan looked for a legal affairs secretary, he chose Mr. Meese. In 1969, when Mr. Reagan’s chief of staff William Clark was named a judge, he asked Mr. Meese to succeed Mr. Clark. Mr. Meese stayed in that post for the remainder of Mr. Reagan’s Sacramento years. He had Mr. Reagan’s confidence, not least for his ability to summarize issues in a clear, concise manner. Mr. Edwards quotes Reagan biographer Lou Cannon as saying Mr. Meese was “Reagan’s geographer — someone who drew maps of Mr. Reagan’s world and charted courses that enabled the governor to reach his destination.”
By the time Mr. Reagan’s second gubernatorial term ended in January 1975, Mr. Meese had become vice presidentofa transportation company near San Diego, but the corporate world was not for him. He went into private law practice, then taught at the University of San Diego’s Law School until January 1981. He advised Mr. Reagan’s 1976 presidential nomination campaign.
From 1977 on, Mr. Meese conferred regularly with Mr. Reagan’s key California aides and became a key member of his “exploratory” presidential committee when it was formed in spring 1979. Later, he became the campaign’s chief of staff. In April 1980, he quietly organized a small office to plan a Reagan transition. Publicity was to be avoided, lest it appear Mr. Reagan was being presumptuous. When Mr. Reagan won the November election, he named Mr. Meese as director of the transition; however, Mr. Meese was deeply disappointed when he was not namedWhite House chief of staff. Mr. Reagan asked him to be, instead, counselor to the president, with cabinet rank. This would be the pivotal position for translating Mr. Reagan’s policy objectives into active programs.
On reflection, he accepted. Mr. Meese was thus deeply involved in major policy efforts of the administration. In 1984, when Attorney General William French Smith announced his desire to retire to California, the president chose Mr. Meese to succeed him. Senate Democrats tied up his nomination for 13 months. Their real aim was to besmirch the president, just as their latter-day counterparts have been doing recently.
After he was confirmed, Attorney General Meese launched Department of Justice efforts to increase crime victims’ rights, combat narcotics traffic, deter terrorism and help find judicial candidates who would interpret the Constitution rather than “legislate” — Mr. Reagan appointed nearly half the federal judiciary during his two terms.
In May 1987, congressional Democrats intimated Mr. Meese had benefited from a government military contractor. They demanded an investigation. According to the author, “The real reason was that … Meese was the leader of a largely successful campaign to change the legal and even … the social culture of America.” An independent counsel was appointed and a year later cleared Mr. Meese. Asked to comment, Mr. Reagan said, “If Ed Meese is not a good man, there are no good men.”
Peter Hannaford is the author of “Recollections of Reagan.”
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