Smiths Come Down From the Summit

Times Staff Writer

It was a fairly dismal situation. Oh, there were two dozen pink tulips from the Austin Pecks on the coffee table and the peppermint tea was hot and fragrant, but the silver teapot was nowhere to be found.

More than 20 boxes of books were stacked in the library. The furniture was swaddled in plastic. Where was the living room lamp--missing? lost? misplaced? The floors were dusty. Paintings leaned against walls. The dining room table had strange wax imprints, as if someone had ironed on it.

On the patio, a skeleton of what might have been a geranium pleaded for burial. Ants--big ones--scurried along the brick wall.

And, inside, the phone rang and rang and rang. And a bee buzzed in the living room. From the fireplace, unmistakably, there was a hum and a hive.

Were they glad to be home?

Said Jean Smith, looking at her garden through the French doors of their gracious home in San Marino: "It's a mixed blessing, I mean mixed emotions. Everything looks so green here."

Atty. Gen. William French Smith (now succeeded by Edwin Meese) said several days ago: "I certainly am, but, as everyone says, always, with mixed feelings. Because that is a very traumatic experience in Washington. Active public service has an attraction, a fascination and a satisfaction that cannot be duplicated anywhere."

The return from the summit to private life has been known to drive some people to the ragged edge. Withdrawal from the nation's on-the-scene power structure means giving up territorial domain. Will this be an adjustment, after the heights?

"Oh, I am sure it is going to be a severe adjustment," said the 67-year-old and white-haired but athletically trim Smith. "But, in my case, it's too early to tell. With all the nuts and bolts, you don't have too much time to reflect. The standard term is decompression, and I don't know yet what that means, but this kind of transition will have its minuses and pluses. Of course, any change from one activity to another involves some trauma."

Like deciding on jobs, buying cars, selling a '79 VW Rabbit, finding a live-in housekeeper and deciding where to place the contents of another 23 barrels (much of them with memorabilia from his last four years as head of the Department of Justice) arriving next week.

Smith is returning to his post with Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the prestigious law firm, where he was a managing partner before he left for Washington.

This week the President appointed Smith to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which oversees the intelligence community of the federal government.

And politics? "I haven't planned anything in that area. I was even asked to run (for senator), but . . . I have said absolutely no." Absolutely no? "Absolutely no."

"But I will undoubtedly go on some boards of directors. I am sure I will do some speaking."

But first, reminded Jean, "You have to unpack all those books. Only Bill can do that. They were his dowry . They have to be just so."

After living at the Jefferson Hotel four years and always being able to ring up the hotel desk on any problem, Jean Smith looked about the chaos and moaned, "I wish I had a desk." She wasn't taking about a writing table. "I don't know where this is all going to go," she said. "We thought about moving to a smaller place, but, no way, with all this . . . and (the area of) Pasadena is very sane and serene."

Pre-Washington, the much-in-demand William French Smiths led the Los Angeles social scene. Jean was a prize director on Red Cross and Salvation Army boards (neither of which would permit her to resign when she went to Washington). She worked ceaselessly for United Way. In the capital, she was on the board of the National Symphony, chairman of the Opera Ball fund-raiser in 1981.

Now what?

Continuing Commitments

"I'll stay on the President's Commission on White House Fellowships, helping interview the 30 finalists in the spring. And I'll probably stay on the board of VOLUNTEER, the National Center, a clearinghouse for volunteers."

She'll also return to both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army: "I owe it to them for awhile. But I think you reach a point when it's time to step down for someone else."

And he will continue to serve as a University of California Regent and as a trustee of the Huntington Library.

His tenure in office altered his earlier opinion that government is populated by people who sit on their hands--"at least at the Department of Justice. I have been comforted by the caliber of people government can attract at both the career level and what is referred to as the political-appointee level. Another thing that impressed me was that almost everyone I talked with, including Chief Justice (Warren) Burger, said that service in the Department of Justice had been one of the most rewarding experiences of their careers."

Recalled Smith: "When I went back, I didn't intend to stay as long as I did. But the fourth year was very productive because a significant number of changes in the department, which had not come to fruition at the end of the third year, did by the fourth."

Did they enjoy Washington?

"Very, very much," Jean said. "Once you get used to the press. Public life is one thing; private life is another, so you cope with things in the press that are not necessarily the way you think they are, at least, and every morning you pick up the paper and wish you could correct it, or give your viewpoint, but you get used to it."

She doesn't appear to have been permanently wounded by the barbs of columnist Richard Cohen, who suggested her "amethyst and diamond" earrings were significant enough to buy a house. She wrote him a letter. "I said," she said, "that I was aghast that Richard Cohen was so bedazzled by my fake earrings . . . to comment they could buy a house. Well, perhaps a small doghouse, into which he could fit." They were $40 worth of fake. Would she wear them again? "I would. I would," she said, giggling, "if I had an occasion and an amethyst dress. They are among my best earrings."

What will she miss about Washington?

"Good friends, and I hope I don't lose them. The Canadian Ambassador Allan Gotlieb and his wife, Sondra, were very good friends; they had several going-away parties for us--one last year (when the Smiths expected to return to the Southland, before Edwin Meese encountered delays in confirmation) and one this year. And Nancy Dickerson, delightful to be with. And Jayne and Frank Ikard and Mary Jane and Charles Wick, whom we really didn't know very well here, but became good friends with, and Joan and Tom Braden."

She won't regret, she said, Washington Post Style write-ups referring to Cabinet officers attending, but never mentioning their wives, "as if we were at home." "In Washington, you are 'the wife of' or 'the husband of.' "

Two New Projects

She's thinking of two new projects: "I want to--when I get the house squared away--learn about computers and word processors--I think the world is passing me by. I don't understand them, and, two, I want to take a course in drawing, probably at Pasadena City College. Also, I think I'd like to try my hand at a little bit of writing."

A book? "I doubt it. I have a few notes, mostly about menus."

Both comment separately that they decided jointly to enjoy their Washington experience to the fullest.

Said the former attorney general: "There is a Washington whirl that takes place at night, a great variety of different aspects and activities. In a real sense you cannot become acquainted with Washington unless you participate in that activity. It's an essential way to meet members of Congress and members of the Administration . . . you would never know a U.S. senator if all you did was testify before a Senate committee. And Washington is a tennis town (his partners frequently were FBI chief Bill Webster, Hill & Knowlton's Robert John Robison, Vice President George Bush, Sen. Paul Laxalt, Treasury's Jim Baker). There's golf at Burning Tree (Country Club) . . . it's a full life, but it's the only way to be most effective in public service."

Added Jean: "A black-tie dinner there is not nearly as dressy as one in Los Angeles, and it ends about 10 o'clock."

"In Washington," he said, "you are infected by what has to be done. There are no hours. You do what is desirable to get the job done."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°