It was easy to overlook Ed Meese at the start of Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House. Interior Secretary James G. Watt and United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick easily overshadowed the longtime Reagan factotum as Administration standard-bearers for the New Right. Meese was late to controversy, and even the revelations about his personal financial dealings that emerged from his confirmation hearings as attorney general smacked less of outright wrongdoing than did the accusations against a host of lesser appointees who by the second Reagan term had been driven from office.
Of the troika of advisers who served the President during his first term, Meese was the most outspoken on issues but nonetheless was rather colorless--certainly no media attraction compared to Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, the daily nuts-and-bolts man, or Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver, the Nancy Reagan confidant.
Nevertheless, statement by statement, controversy by controversy, Edwin Meese III began to emerge in the public perception--even before he became attorney general in 1985 after a rancorous year of debate over his nomination--as a one-man scourge of traditional liberal thinking and as the Administration’s ideological point man.
In 1981, in a speech before the California Peace Officers Assn., he called the American Civil Liberties Union a “criminals’ lobby.” At Christmas time in 1983, he said he had seen no “authoritative” evidence of a serious hunger problem in America, and that some people go to soup kitchens “because the food is free, and that’s easier than paying for it.” This year, five days before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday was first celebrated as a federal holiday, Meese invoked the slain civil-rights leader’s name in attacking affirmative action. King, said Meese, would have opposed affirmative action as a violation of his ideal “colorblind” society.
His Justice Department prompted a series of congressional investigations by refusing to seek the indictment of Teamsters Union president and FBI informant Jackie Presser in connection with a payroll-padding scheme that bilked Presser’s union local out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and by negotiating a plea with--rather than prosecuting--executives of E.F. Hutton & Co., the giant brokerage house caught in a huge fraud case that resembled a massive check-kiting operation.
But far more alarming to many lawyers, judges and legal scholars was the attorney general’s frontal assault on decades of established constitutional doctrine. He sparked a profound constitutional debate by arguing that Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Bill of Rights had violated the intent of the Founding Fathers. He attacked the high court’s long-accepted Miranda rulings on the rights of criminal suspects. He sought to roll back the so-called exclusionary rule, which bars the courtroom use of evidence obtained without “reasonable cause.” And, in an unusual move by an attorney general, he publicly called on the Supreme Court to reverse its landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
Many who have known the attorney general since his days as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County in the early 1960s are puzzled by what they detect as a growing vehemence in Meese’s policy decisions and his pronouncements. They don’t quite recognize their old friend and colleague, whom they remember as pragmatic and mild-mannered. Is Meese a changed man, some wonder, or was he always the gladiator he seems to be now? After years of working in the wings of Reagan administrations in Sacramento and Washington, had he simply been waiting for the right moment to unsheathe his ideological weaponry?
The answer, they suggest, lies in Meese’s roots--in a devout and tightknit family that found its highest calling not in grimy politics but in public service; in the shifting social and political structure of Alameda County during World War II, when large numbers of blacks surged in and eventually gained power; in the chummy atmosphere of the debating clubs of Yale and the district attorney’s office in Oakland, and in the political turmoil that wracked the UC Berkeley campus and propelled Ed Meese into a friendship with Ronald Reagan and, eventually, into the White House.
San Francisco Appellate Court Justice Clinton W. White, an eloquent jurist who graduated from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school a decade before Meese and for many years was a criminal defense attorney in Alameda, has observed Meese for years from close up and afar. “I can’t think of any time in Ed’s life,” he says, “when he would have received any environmental conditioning that would have made him a liberal.”
“Years and years ago, before the First World War, when I was growing up here in Oakland, it seemed there were a lot of German people around in comparison to other people,” says Leone Meese, the gentle-spoken, 82-year-old mother of the attorney general. “All our relatives were members of the Zion Lutheran Church in west Oakland. Both my husband and I belonged as children. We all lived within a radius of six blocks. I used to stop in and see both of my grandmothers on my way home from school. It was still the same thing when Ed was growing up. My husband’s mother lived next door. Later, when her husband died, she lived with us. The men seemed to die young then. My father was originally a cooper, then later he worked as a manager at Durkee’s--in the mayonnaise department.”
A tall, stolid woman whose husband died last year, short of his 90th birthday, Leone Meese lives in a 17th-floor apartment furnished in slipcover hodgepodge, with a splendid view of Lake Merritt and its island bird sanctuary. She has agreed to see me only after she has cleared it with her son, who has declined to be interviewed himself. “He told me to ‘keep it simple,’ ” she confides, which she does her best to do. Periodically, she interrupts herself to ask me not to print what she’s just said, explaining apologetically, “Ed wouldn’t like that.”
With all her touching self-censorship and innate modesty, Leone Meese conveys a portrait of a loving, pious and admittedly square American family that was typical of an earlier era but for the minor ethnic variable of their German Lutheranism, an authoritarian and conservative religion that was a powerful influence and source of spiritual support for all the Meeses.
Herman Meese, the German-born great-grandfather of the attorney general, arrived in Oakland in 1850, at the tail end of a wave of German Lutherans who came to America in the early 1800s, in flight from Prussian religious persecution. Their Lutheran sect, known as the Missouri Synod, is considered one of the religion’s most conservative branches. It is known for its Biblical literalism, its strict hierarchy and its typically uninvolved attitude toward government. An insular people in many ways--they developed the second-largest parochial school system in the country--Lutherans have close family and clan ties and a strong aversion to flamboyance.
Many, like the Meeses, eventually settled in the sun-drenched, hilly Oakland neighborhoods with picturesque names such as Piedmont and Glenview. The very name Piedmont came to symbolize the white bastion from which most of Oakland’s political establishment came. In contrast was the west Oakland flatland where the Meeses’ church, Zion Lutheran, was located. The church underwent a radical transformation with the influx of Southern blacks who began arriving en masse during World War II. They came as sailors to nearby Alameda Naval Station, and they came to work in the shipyards as part of the war effort. Black Lutherans eventually started to attend the Zion church.
“They had segregated services,” says Bishop Will Herzfeld, whose Bethlehem Church now occupies the Zion site. Blacks worshiped earlier in the day. Whites came in later--"after they’d aired the church out,” Herzfeld says with a cutting laugh. Eventually, the Zion church vacated the ghetto in favor of the tight, white Piedmont enclave in the neighborhood near where the Meeses lived--straight up Park Boulevard to the strictly residential hills. The new Zion church was perched on a scarred rocky hillside like a small medieval cloister.
Leone Meese readily acknowledges the influence of the religion on her own and her sons’ upbringing, but she says a far greater influence on the boys was her late husband, whom she calls “the most marvelous example.” Edwin Meese Jr. had a law degree and a doctorate in jurisprudence. He clerked in police court before he was elected treasurer-tax collector for Alameda County, a post he held until his retirement.
This type of public service easily overrode traditional Lutheran antipathies for government. The Meeses, more than many of their neighbors, became a family as patriotic as they were pious. They were exemplars of the Protestant American ethic. Ed and his three brothers worked for spending money. Ed had paper routes. In his teens he earned $2.50 a day clearing trails in the rugged East Bay park system. There was neither luxury nor pretension in the Meese household. On birthdays for the boys it was always hamburgers. At Easter it was spring lamb. Every night the whole family knelt to pray together. Every night they all stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a ritual bonding--part of a way of life that made the Meeses particularly close.
Adversity would have a similar effect. According to Leone Meese and many who knew the family back then, when second son Myron was born with spina bifida, a crippling disease that left him partially paralyzed (but even today still able to work part time at the Zion church office), the family drew together in a protectiveness that would be repeated years later, in 1982, after the tragic death in a car accident of Ed’s son, Scott.
Ed Meese shared a room with Myron, but without a doubt, his mother says, Ed was particularly close to his father. With her husband’s example before him, it was no wonder that her eldest son was mad to become a lawyer, Leone Meese says, and that he looked forward eagerly to a career in politics and law enforcement. Her husband often came home in the evening from his job as police court clerk and entertained their son with stories extolling the excitement of the law. Ed Meese became a fan of Perry Mason.
In high school, Meese’s fascination with courtroom forensics found an outlet when he became a member of the debating team. Back then, however, honing his public speaking skills was for sport, not for an arsenal in service to an ideology. Still, debate became his favorite extracurricular activity--which was saying a lot, considering the many service organizations and activities he had joined in his youth: publishing a news sheet with his brothers at the age of 10 and using the profits to buy war bonds; being a Cub Scout and Boy Scout, and joining Oakland High’s military club, the Sabers, to name a few. It marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment in volunteerism.
According to fellow high school forensics society member Casey James, today a cryotechnician at the Stanford University Linear Accelerator, Meese didn’t start out with the freewheeling oratorical skills James sees in him today. “Ed operated under a handicap--the kid could never think on his feet. I could wing it,” he says, more with amusement than braggadocio, “but Ed was too meticulous. He didn’t do well arguing a point of view he didn’t believe in.” Still, “once he formed an opinion, it was hard to sway him.”
Debating, of course, places a premium on the ability to present any side of an argument, regardless of the speaker’s personal preferences. It was a skill that would later serve Meese in good stead as an adviser to a governor and a President. Those who have seen Meese in his adviser’s capacity say that he has been particularly valuable to Reagan because of his ability to present several options succinctly and without prejudice.
Meese continued his debating at Yale, where he studied political science on a scholarship. He was a mediocre student, but he managed to juggle his education with his many other activities: president of the Yale Political Union, member of a Lutheran student organization and manager of the school track team.
In 1958, he married his high school sweetheart, Ursula Herrick, whose father was Oakland’s postmaster. Her family was almost a mirror image of his own, though Episcopalian (she would worship at her husband’s church after their marriage). “Ursie,” as the family calls her, won the “outstanding woman” award at the College of the Pacific in 1954 before going to graduate school at Radcliffe and beginning work as a deputy probation officer. Like their respective parents, Ed and Ursula Meese would be known for their simplicity. They dressed down. They were unpretentious at home. In their Sacramento days, old friends say, they had backyard barbecues rather than cocktail hours. “Ed dries the dishes,” one friend says. In Washington, Ursula Meese feels more comfortable serving brunch than hosting dinner parties.
Their wedding, however, was full of pomp and tradition. The reception, held in the officers’ club on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, had the trappings of a union between two samurai families--the Meeses and the Herricks of Oakland--right down to cutting the cake with a military sword.
As it turned out, Meese would grow attached to more than just the trappings of the military. In 1954, he left law school at Berkeley for a hitch in Army artillery. But soon after he switched to military intelligence, where he felt more at home. He has retained an enthusiasm for the logistics and intelligence methods he learned in the Army and has applied them throughout his public career: as a deputy district attorney in Alameda; as the governor’s man on the scene during social protests in the ‘60s, and as White House counselor and later attorney general, mapping out commando-style operations--using military equipment--as part of the Reagan Administration’s war on drug traffic. He retained his membership in the Army Ready Reserve until 1984, when he reluctantly retired amid controversy over his highly unorthodox promotion to colonel in 1981. (During his Senate confirmation hearings for attorney general, critics charged that his promotion, and his transfer from the inactive reserve six days before his mandatory retirement, may have violated federal as well as Army regulations.)
Meese returned to Boalt in the late ‘50s and in his final year turned his attention to an internship in the Alameda district attorney’s office. It came as no surprise that after his graduation he was almost immediately hired as a deputy by Dist. Atty. J. Frank Coakley. Meese, says San Francisco’s Judge White, “was one of those sons of the Piedmont Establishment who knew as law students that they could go right into the Alameda district attorney’s office upon graduation.”
Meese’s military bent might never have surfaced as a deputy district attorney were it not for the coincidence and proximity of the exploding Berkeley campus during his years in Alameda law enforcement. The Ed Meese who graduated from Boalt in 1958 was a member of the silent generation--a Boalt classmate describes him then as an “all-American, Jack Armstrong type” who wore white shirts and sported a crew cut. As deputy district attorney of Alameda in the ‘60s, he was suddenly thrown into the midst of a campus in turmoil. College political activists rioted against the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960. Students at Berkeley began to protest everything from nuclear testing to compulsory ROTC training.
The Oakland in which Ed Meese grew up, and the university he had known as a neighbor and law student, were in the process of tremendous change, and he reacted without hesitation to what he viewed as a danger to society.
Meese left his mark forever on Bay Area law enforcement with his handling of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, which sprang from protests over enforcement of a long-dormant university rule forbidding demonstrations that dealt with off-campus issues and barring speakers from certain areas of the school. In fact, it was Meese’s contribution to the FSM crackdown (which he conducted with Deputy Dist. Atty. D. Lowell Jensen, now Meese’s deputy attorney general) that first won him the notice of Ronald Reagan, who came to the state governorship in 1966 on a campaign promise to “clean up the mess” at Berkeley. Meese is widely credited with establishing new techniques and methods in mass arrests. It was Meese, local historians say, who ordered police to nab the movement’s leaders first, leaving the group without its principal organizers. He also favored early morning arrests, when there were fewer crowds and less media attention. Under his supervision, arresting officers for the first time used Polaroid cameras to take identifying photos on the spot, thus avoiding any later question in a trial about the defendant’s participation and obviating the need for taking large numbers of protesters to the police station for booking. The same techniques were employed at Berkeley in recent weeks when demonstrators were arrested for protesting university ties to South Africa.
Meese’s experiences with the Free Speech Movement also made him a firm believer in the coordinated use of several law-enforcement agencies (such as the Sheriff’s Department, local police and National Guard) to quell civil disturbances--a strategy that he would later champion as attorney general in the fight against drug trafficking.
The way Meese saw it, the use of such force was justified in the face of a state of siege from people he considered subversives. During the FSM trials, Meese described one sit-in as a “paramilitary operation.” He would later testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee that the antiwar movement was responsible for prolonging the war by encouraging the North Vietnamese, and that it “cost a lot of American lives.”
Tom Houchins, the bald-headed, cowboy-style vice president of a San Francisco security firm, enjoys telling war stories about the days when he led the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department--known as the Blue Meanies because of their blue jump suits--to meet the ragtag Berkeley demonstrators over the bit of UC-owned turf known as People’s Park. Houchins especially remembers the time when Ed Meese would not be dissuaded from coming along with Houchins and his men in the final mop-up to clear the illegal occupiers of Moses Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.
In 1966, when Gov. Ronald Reagan chose Meese to be his secretary of clemency and extradition (the title and duties were soon changed to legal affairs secretary), social protest had grown more militant and widespread. During the bloody uprising at San Francisco State College in 1969, Meese stepped into the fray and took control of the college from its president, S.I. Hayakawa. And he was working for Reagan in Sacramento in 1967 when the Black Panthers strutted into the Assembly, outfitted with weapons and bandoleers, to protest a bill restricting the carrying of weapons. To Ed Meese, this was a state of siege.
But it wasn’t mere fear that drew Meese toward the war-games aspect of his work. Those who knew him in his early days in California law enforcement and politics say he has always exhibited an unbridled enthusiasm for the police--even more than for the military. One of his hobbies was collecting small model squad cars and statuettes of pigs, the protesters’ epithet of choice for the police in the ‘60s. The way some describe it, Ed Meese was an action junkie. A standing joke in the courthouse was that Meese would drop anything he was doing and go out to answer a police call coming in over his desktop police radio.
But Deputy Atty. Gen. Jensen says Meese’s celebrated rides with the cops were nothing out of the ordinary. “It was a regular practice for us to ride with them on patrol. D.A.s in Alameda were close to the police,” he says. In Jensen’s opinion, it served an important purpose. “D.A.s could help educate the police about exclusionary law, for example. There was good feedback from police to help our job.”
“It was perfectly proper to ride along with the police,” agrees Clinton White, “but I don’t know many who had developed a reputation for what they call a ‘police mentality’ the way that Meese did early on. He’s into law enforcement. It’s part of his ideology.”
“Ed loves the cops beyond most D.A.s,” says Alameda County Superior Court Judge Stanley P. Golde, a former attorney for the Free Speech Movement who, even though he is a Democrat opposed to capital punishment, was made a judge by Reagan at Meese’s urging. “If you’d asked him as a young lawyer if he wanted to head the FBI or Scotland Yard, he might have done it, because he loves to map out an operation. But it’s not a John Wayne type of thing. He wouldn’t want to be the cop himself and shoot people.”
Besides, Ed Meese was doing very well on his peculiar track through the Alameda County district attorney’s office. For anyone interested in law enforcement, the gray granite county courthouse was an enormous draw. Tough-talking Dist. Atty. Coakley took Meese in at an early age, then groomed him and Jensen to become his two most trusted confidants.
Golde became Meese’s friend in the short years they were adversaries. “Ed was always pragmatic,” Golde says. “I’d show him what I had, point out what wasn’t that good in his case, and we’d settle it.” Golde, the older man, says he taught Meese a few things. But he didn’t, he claims, have to teach him humanity. Meese could be “compassionate--almost kind,” Golde says. “Ed understands individuals messing up, but not any political movements or groups who violate the law.”
James C. Hooley, then chief assistant public defender, sees Meese’s “pragmatics” with attorneys like Golde in a different light. “He was not lenient,” Hooley says. “It seemed like his cases always pled guilty--at least they never went to trial.”
The way leftist attorney Robert Treuhaft sees it, Ed Meese and Stan Golde were only carrying on a local tradition of mutual back-scratching at the defendants’ expense: “When I came out here from New York,” Treuhaft says, “I was dismayed at how they did things here. Oakland was very much a hick town, despite its D.A.s’ rep for excellence. Criminal attorneys around here were all friends with the prosecutors. They’d screw the clients for the lawyers’ ease, because they had to deal with each other all the time. I was upset. It was so unprofessional.”
“When we started, it was like a club of gentlemen,” Golde agrees. But he has a different interpretation of its effects on Meese. To Golde, Meese’s friendliness with defense attorneys made him more flexible. It meant Meese respected and could work with his opponents.
Suzanne Goldberg, one of the FSM student leaders, remembers Meese in yet a different way from most of his old colleagues. She remembers the pointed contrast between the two prosecutors--Jensen and Meese--whom she saw in court every day for weeks. “Jensen,” says Goldberg, now a Washington psychologist, “was a real mensch. He was decent, even though he was prosecuting us. Meese would never respond to us if we’d smile or say hello to him in the halls. He’d walk by without speaking.”
Such lapses in civility were the exception. Indeed, Meese learned to make his own brand of tepid affability the perfect countenance for his travels through the bazaars of politics and government. He seems to have saved his most passionate expressions for his own chosen arena--the hundreds of keynote speeches he’s delivered at dinners for 500, where rhetoric is a part of the menu.
There are dozens of examples. Addressing a luncheon of the California Safety Congress in the late ‘60s, Meese equated traffic violators with “criminals,” each one “as much a potential murderer as a man with a gun.” Appearing on “Meet the Press” in 1981, Meese declared that government workers who leak classified information to the news media are “betraying this country.” Even his friends winced when he called the ACLU a “criminals’ lobby.” Golde calls such statements “Ed’s horror stories. He tells them to make a point. He always did. It’s because he loves going after goldfish with a cannon.”
Meese’s sometime knack for verbal overkill (or, as some would call it, his tendency toward demagoguery) exists in odd juxtaposition to another aspect of his personality--that of the bland, faceless public servant with a chameleon-like ability to melt into Ronald Reagan’s political camouflage.
Meese was very much in the background in Sacramento, first as legal affairs secretary and later as Reagan’s chief of staff. “I remember him as an efficient administrator rather than a big conservative ideologue,” says a former AP bureau reporter in Sacramento. “I can see him standing over in the corner of the briefing room, his arms folded across his chest during one of Reagan’s regular press briefings. Reagan would be groping for a figure and look to Ed. Or he’d give him a questioning look and Ed would nod ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ No one viewed Ed as a real heavyweight.”
“He never gave orders,” says Bob Hawkins, president of the Sequoia Institute, a conservative think tank in Sacramento, who used to report to Meese after he was brought in to direct the troubled state Office of Economic Opportunity. “We arrived at decisions through consensus. It was one of the things I enjoyed about working with Ed.” Another was Meese’s prodigious mastery of all the reports crossing his desk. The youthful Hawkins says he was “amazed” at the access he was given to Reagan’s busy chief of staff.
At least one observer, a Republican Party activist and consultant who has known Meese since his days in Sacramento, has a different view. Meese’s lifelong habit of volunteerism--membership in clubs, hundreds of speaking engagements--has meant a career marred by overextending himself, which has led to a constant state of disorganization. One of Reagan’s first campaign advisers, John P. Sears, called Meese’s briefcase the “black hole of Calcutta” because he seemed to lose so many papers. (This may also explain the incident last year in which the L.A. Police Department issued a warrant for Ed Meese’s arrest--for his failure to pay a 5-year-old jaywalking ticket.)
“His biggest weakness is that he doesn’t have the ego or self-confidence to manage himself or other people well,” says the Republican consultant. “He has such an obsession to do the perfect thing that he waits too long and doesn’t delegate authority. In his Sacramento days he hired people not nearly as able as he was.”
Golde, on the other hand, calls Meese a “superb organizational guy,” though he laughs and adds, “but he’s a slovenly bastard. His desk was always a mess, his collar wrinkled, and his tie would have a spot on it.”
Meese’s managerial style may help to explain the man Ed Meese has become. He was forced to change as the wheels of government office got larger and harder to turn. “Ed’s incapacities to manage broad issues pushed him to be more ideological,” the consultant says. The troika of Reagan advisers--Meese, Deaver and Baker--was shuffled to accommodate the needs of the President against the abilities of his advisers. “Deaver knew Ed was temperamentally better suited as an adviser than running a huge staff. So Ed would skim off the ideological cream of the issues, and Baker would get everything else.”
The trend in Meese’s increased political posturing, which Boalt Hall classmate and FSM defense attorney Malcolm Burnstein calls “more and more rabid,” was greatly accelerated, some say, by the yearlong Senate confirmation hearings on Meese’s fitness to be the top lawyer in the country. It was a hurtful time, Leone Meese concedes. Meese came under intense scrutiny for several alleged misdeeds, the most serious being that he had helped get high-level federal jobs for several acquaintances who had given him loans, helped him sell his house or arranged for mortgages. Other charges included the questionable promotion in the Army Reserves and that he had repeatedly failed to publicly disclose some of his financial dealings as required by law. The allegations were numerous and persistent enough that a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate. Some legislators--Republican and Democrat--suggested that he withdraw his nomination. He was eventually cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but one longtime acquaintance, who asked that his name not be used, thinks the ordeal did have an effect: “He’s not really given to anger--he has a strong sense of self--but when you look at some of the positions he’s taken since then, you can’t help but suspect that anger underlies his aggression.”
Meese clothed himself during that year in the kind of stoicism borne by his Lutheran forebears. Once again, he retreated into the solace of his family, and particularly Ursula, who Leone Meese and others say is the closest friend Ed Meese has. His vulnerability was hidden from the public. It fitted with his Lutheranism. It fitted with the way the Meeses eschewed public display: “We were never a demonstrative family,” Leone Meese admits readily. “We kiss ‘hello’ or ‘goodby’ and that’s about it. We know we love each other. That’s the important thing.”
That kind of emotional restraint appears to have served Meese well in his career as political operative for Ronald Reagan. “Ed is the perfect public servant,” says Golde.
But it has also extended to his personal life, even among his closest colleagues. He is aloof, many of his friends and associates say, from everyone but his wife and members of his family. In fact, says one longtime acquaintance, a former state government official who for a time worked closely with him in Sacramento, “if you look at Ed Meese, you’ve got to really wonder how many good friends he actually has.”
Perhaps Ed Meese’s mild-mannered rectitude has suited him well in his life of public service, and more important, in his service to Reagan. “He’s playing the role that Agnew did for Nixon--that of lightning rod,” says the former state official. Another California Republican insider argues: “I don’t think he cares about abortion more than any other issue, but I think he’s pragmatic and will carry the President’s agenda forward whatever the content. His great attribute is his loyalty.” It may be, as Clinton White says, that Meese’s entire history has led him to become the sometimes bland, sometimes bellicose right-wing crusader.
And, after all, his loyalty and political skills have hurtled him higher in public life than any Meese forebear had ever gone before. Even the attorney general’s normally modest mother admits that she’s proud.