When Ronald Reagan was once asked whom he would rely on if he faced a crisis, he replied, without hesitation, “Ed Meese.” Reagan’s ready response reveals the special relationship between one of the most successful presidents in modern history and his indispensable aide and policy adviser.
Time and again, Reagan would turn to Meese after a far-ranging discussion among cabinet officers and policy experts. Meese, who as usual had been taking careful notes on a yellow legal pad, would present the arguments on all sides so scrupulously that no one objected. “No one could synthesize policy for the president as Ed did,” remarks James A. Baker, chief of staff for President Reagan in his first term and a member of the famed White House “troika” of Baker, Meese, and Michael K. Deaver. “He was superb.” “Reagan valued Ed’s mind,” says Deaver, “his ability to sum up and recommend.”
Tending the Prairie Fire
Reagan also valued Meese’s steadfast loyalty, not simply to himself but to conservative principles such as limited government, free enterprise, individual freedom, and strong moral values. “He tended the prairie fire” that Reagan ignited in California, says Deaver, who served as Meese’s deputy in Sacramento, “and made sure it didn’t go out.” The president used Meese as “a sounding board” for issues and ideas, according to William P. Clark, who preceded Meese as Governor Reagan’s chief of staff and was later President Reagan’s national security adviser. “Ed had an unsurpassed knowledge of the president’s thinking.”
From their first days in Sacramento, Governor Reagan relied on Meese. Drawing on his years as deputy district attorney in Alameda County, which included the University of California at Berkeley, Meese helped organize a policy of firm response to campus and other disorders, a core issue for Reagan in his 1966 gubernatorial campaign. Meese developed a system for evaluating judicial candidates that removed “cronyism” from the courts—a frequent criticism of previous administrations—and ensured that California had highly qualified judges who “understood and believed in the law.” In 1971, Meese suggested establishing a task force on welfare reform to isolate the causes of runaway state spending and design a new welfare system. The new program transformed public welfare in California: The welfare caseload dropped by several hundred thousand people, and payments to the truly needy increased significantly.
In Washington, D.C., Presidential Counselor Meese, knowing Reagan’s preference for cabinet government, devised an innovative system of “cabinet councils” that grouped members according to their areas of responsibility. A cabinet council, explained Martin Anderson, Reagan’s chief domestic and economic policy adviser in his first two years, was “really a smaller, tailor-made version of the cabinet” with the “same force and authority in dealing” with issues that the entire cabinet had. Anderson estimated that “almost all of the policy work” during the first years of the Reagan administration—including the historic Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981—was funneled through the cabinet councils.
Meese’s responsibilities as principal policy adviser to President Reagan ran the gamut of issues from abortion to the “zero option” on intermediate-range nuclear missiles. In mid-September 1981, for example, Meese hosted a small meeting to discuss the feasibility of developing an anti-ballistic missile system in keeping with Reagan’s long-expressed opposition to the U.S. policy of mutual assured destruction. The group agreed that a system to intercept ballistic missiles in the earth’s atmosphere and above was possible. After meeting again to explore provisional plans, Meese arranged a meeting with President Reagan on January 8, 1982. Reagan directed the National Security Council (NSC) staff to develop a proposal for a strategic defense program. Meese credits National Security Adviser William Clark with making sure this happened, along with the president’s unwavering personal commitment. But it was Meese’s initiative that set in motion the process that culminated in Reagan’s March 1983 announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative and helped convince the Kremlin it could not win an arms race.
Guarding the Constitution
As presidential counselor and then attorney general, Meese played an essential role in creating the system by which jurists committed to judicial restraint and the written Constitution were selected. Reagan, explained Meese, wanted to name federal judges who would look at the Constitution and statute law and “expound their evident meaning,” rather than use loopholes or convoluted logic to reach some “preconceived [socio-political] conclusion.” As attorney general, Meese oversaw a team of experts who scrupulously vetted candidates for the federal bench. Meese sometimes conducted the final interview before passing on a judicial recommendation to the president.
Contrary to some reports, Reagan appointees were not asked about their political beliefs but were questioned about their understanding of the Constitution and their philosophy of judicial practice. Over the course of his two terms in office, President Reagan appointed almost half of the federal judiciary. Observers, liberal and conservative, have given the Reagan judges high marks for their judicial performance and integrity.
Ever loyal to the written Constitution, Attorney General Meese delivered major addresses that provoked a great debate about the most important document of our Republic. Speaking to the American Bar Association in July 1985 (and later that year to the Federalist Society), Meese argued that the Constitution must be interpreted in light of its original meaning and the common understanding of the Founding Fathers who ratified it. He called for a “jurisprudence of original intention” consistent with the admonition of Chief Justice John Marshall that “the Constitution is a limitation on judicial power as well as executive and legislative.”
Defenders of the notion that the Constitution is what judges say it is vehemently disagreed. Among them was Supreme Court associate justice William J. Brennan Jr., who insisted that the Constitution should be continuously adapted “to cope with the problems of a developing America.” Meese, however, stood with the prudential legal philosophy of Justice Felix Frankfurter, who, although a political liberal, said, “As a member of this court, I am not justified in writing my private notions of policy into the Constitution.” “Ed Meese was the founding father of original understanding,” says Douglas Kmiec, professor of law at Pepperdine University and former dean of Catholic University of America’s law school. “Everyone on the Supreme Court today is an originalist,” Kmiec argues. “That was not the case,” he says, “prior to Ed Meese.”
As the nation’s top legal officer, and consistent with what he knew to be the views of the president, Meese spoke out forcefully for those whose rights had long been overlooked or shunted aside. He argued that the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion should be reversed. He cited the discriminatory nature of affirmative action and other civil rights proposals such as school busing. He described the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a “criminals’ lobby” and called Miranda v. Arizona an “infamous decision.” He fought drug abuse as chairman of the National Drug Policy Board—reinforcing First Lady Nancy Reagan’s successful “Just Say No” campaign—and reacted against the prevalence of obscene materials and child pornography in communities by establishing the Obscenity Enforcement Unit in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
Some say that Meese’s finest hour came on the “four-day weekend” of November 21–24, 1986, when he and three of his top aides conducted an investigation of a hitherto secret administration initiative toward Iran. Concerned about conflicting stories within the administration, Meese suggested to Reagan that someone needed to review “all aspects” of the Iran initiative so that the administration could present “a comprehensive and accurate account.” The president asked Meese to take on the assignment.
To their surprise and dismay, Meese and his assistants discovered a memo in the files of NSC staffer Lt. Col. Oliver North describing a plan to direct profits derived from arms transactions with Iran to support the Contras—the Nicaraguan freedom fighters. Support for the Nicaraguan resistance was one of the most hotly debated issues of the day. Iran was also a sensitive subject—Americans had not forgotten that the Iranian government had held 52 Americans hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran for over a year. The combination of Iran and the Contras was an explosive and potentially highly damaging issue to the administration. “We had to find out exactly what had happened,” Meese later wrote. And they did.
Based on interviews with Oliver North, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, and others, the Meese team discovered that there had been a “diversion” of Iranian arms money to the Contras. Only three people in the U.S. government had apparently known about the scheme—North, Poindexter, and McFarlane. When a shocked President Reagan was told on November 24 what had been uncovered, he ordered an immediate and complete disclosure, resulting in a full-scale press conference the following day. The Iran-Contra affair produced official investigations by the Tower Commission appointed by the president, by Congress, and by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh. Although these inquiries did unearth some new data, Meese pointed out that “in major respects they confirmed the story that my staff and I had been able to piece together in less than seventy-six hours.”
Meese never doubted the potential gravity of Iran-Contra, characterizing it as “a serious mistake by men who, in their zeal to advance legitimate national interests, took steps that were both unauthorized and unwise.” Their extreme actions, he said, “damaged the administration” and “agitated the country.” But he denied the charge by liberal Democrats and others that Iran-Contra had brought about a “constitutional crisis” or that the actions of a few members of the administration constituted a “threat to democratic government.” The administration’s handling of Iran-Contra demonstrated that the system of checks and balances instituted by the founders of the Republic still worked. Still, one can speculate about the course of events if Meese—at President Reagan’s direction—had not acted as promptly and as thoroughly as he did. Any attempt at a cover-up would have prompted the media to suggest a parallel with Watergate and encouraged congressional calls for the president’s impeachment.
Because of Meese’s unwavering fidelity to President Reagan and a conservative agenda, he became a prime target of those who were adamantly opposed to what the president was trying to accomplish at home and abroad. Unable to block what they perceived as wrong and even dangerous policies, partisans vented their mounting frustration and anger on the president’s right-hand man, leaking ugly rumors about his supposed incompetence as presidential adviser. Often quoted was Reagan campaign aide John Sears’s wisecrack that Meese’s briefcase resembled “a black hole”—anything that went into it never came out.
Critics held up his Senate confirmation to be attorney general for over a year while an independent counsel picked and probed into alleged misdeeds such as a gift of “standard-issue” cuff links from the government of South Korea; whether Meese had been given preferential treatment in his promotion from lieutenant colonel to colonel in the Army Reserve; and the fact, admitted by Meese, that he had failed to list a $15,000 loan to his wife, Ursula, by a former associate on his financial disclosure statement. In his 385-page report, independent counsel Jake Stein said of every allegation that there was either “no basis for any criminal charge” or “no evidence of special treatment.” President Reagan publicly declared that “it’s always gratifying when the honor of a just man is vindicated.”
With characteristic grace, Meese said he was “not bitter at all” about the lengthy investigation or the mudslinging, although some had dug deep for their mud. But Meese’s forbearance seemed to enrage his critics. In May 1987 congressional Democrats urged an investigation of whether Meese, while in the White House, had received anything of value in exchange for asking that the Army consider the application of a company whose legal counsel was a longtime friend of his. Such referrals, of course, occur frequently in the federal government, especially in Congress. A year later, independent counsel James McKay announced that no “evidence [was] discovered that Mr. Meese, at any time, knowingly received any amount or thing of value from anyone in return for or on account of any official act he performed which benefited the company.” Regarding other allegations, including “lost” stocks and late tax payments, McKay reported: “The financial records of Mr. and Mrs. Meese did not evidence any unexplained income or expenditure, unusual asset, concealed transaction or any other unexplained improvement in their financial condition since 1980.”
That should have ended the matter, but when Meese resigned as attorney general in August 1988, his ideological enemies and those of the president rushed to condemn him and his record. According to Norman Dorsen, president of the ACLU, Meese had “presided over the Reagan administration’s efforts to restrict the individual liberties of millions of Americans.” Meese “has never been more than two steps ahead of the law,” said Arthur J. Kropp, president of the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way. “He leaves a record of shame.” When polled by the Wall Street Journal, Harvard professor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., leftist Victor Navasky, and liberal columnist Hodding Carter III placed Meese among the “worst” Reagan appointees. Carter called Meese “consistently wrong” in his advice and of “dubious” ethics.
The Perfect Public Servant
And yet those who had worked with Meese over a lifetime of public service showered him with encomiums that would make a mother blush. Former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger said that Meese was “always one of the most effective and believable spokesmen” during “the eight great years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.”
Whether they had known him for 40 years or 4, the tributes of Meese’s colleagues were remarkably similar. “You could always depend upon Ed,” remarks Reagan aide and speechwriter Peter Hannaford, “for a well-reasoned conservative response to almost any issue.” “Ed loved ideas,” says Charles Cooper, former head of the Office of Legal Counsel, who helped organize a series of Justice Department conferences on everything from the First Amendment to federalism at Meese’s instruction. “He wanted to explore them to their deepest level.”
“Ed’s first and only interest was in serving the president,” asserts Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s pollster and political strategist. “When he left the White House for Justice there was a hole that was never completely filled.” “He never seemed to be thrown off balance by stress or by things going the wrong way,” says Theodore Olson, who served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel in Reagan’s first term and Solicitor General for President George W. Bush. “He created an environment,” says John Richardson, who served as Meese’s chief of staff at Justice, “where everyone felt free to propose and advocate new ideas. He had convictions of iron, but an open mind.” “What was extraordinary about Ed,” says Mark Levin, head of the Landmark Legal Foundation, who also served as his chief of staff at Justice, “was how he functioned so efficiently despite the vicious efforts of the left to destroy him.”
One reason he did was the president’s steadfast support. During the McKay inquiry, when questions were raised by political opponents and the media about the integrity of his attorney general, Ronald Reagan responded, “If Ed Meese is not a good man, there are no good men.”