William French Smith, Ronald Reagan’s personal lawyer and a key adviser who placed his conservative stamp on federal policy during his term as U.S. attorney general, died Monday in Los Angeles.
Smith, 73, died with his family at his bedside at the Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Center at County-USC Medical Center, where he had been admitted Oct. 2, a hospital spokeswoman said.
A corporate attorney and senior partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Los Angeles’ largest law firm, Smith was an original member of the “kitchen cabinet” that helped guide Reagan from Hollywood to Sacramento and the White House.
As attorney general, Smith “brought talent, wisdom and the highest integrity to the Department of Justice,” Reagan said Monday. “Our nation was indeed fortunate to have a person of his excellence and patriotism in the cabinet. And we were made better as a country because of Bill’s work.
“More than a colleague, Bill was a valued and trusted friend and adviser. I often sought his wise counsel throughout my years in public life, and I was fortunate to have him at my side.”
As attorney general from 1981-85, Smith was a key architect of the Reagan Administration’s conservative shift on issues affecting domestic policy, including civil rights. While acknowledging that the Administration had been accused of “abandoning the federal civil rights effort,” he maintained that the Justice Department under his leadership vigorously enforced civil rights laws.
But more than half the lawyers in the Justice Department’s civil rights division signed a letter of protest after Smith reversed an 11-year-old policy that gave the Internal Revenue Service the power to deny tax exemptions to private schools.
Smith “served the United States with great distinction,” Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh said.
U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, Smith’s former law partner and his chief of staff in the Justice Department, said Smith was “an immensely gifted lawyer with marvelous sound and wise judgment (who was) unfailingly kind and thoughtful. He was always willing to listen to people, to hear people out.
“It was one of the ironies of his tenure that it was characterized by such far-reaching and profound change in the direction of the federal legal system . . . done in a quintessentially quiet, prudent and lawyerlike fashion.”
After meeting Reagan in 1963, Smith became the future President’s personal lawyer, confidant and business adviser. He has been credited with engineering Reagan’s rise to wealth at a time when the former actor’s primary income was royalties from movies.
Smith, drug store magnate Justin Dart, auto dealer Holmes Tuttle and oil, entertainment and real estate entrepreneur Jack Wrather were among the group of California millionaires known as the “kitchen cabinet.”
They rallied to Reagan after hearing him give a nationally broadcast speech in support of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy. The group persuaded Reagan to run for California governor in 1966, and remained his most important political advisers and fund-raisers. Tuttle once remarked that during Reagan’s eight years in Sacramento, the group “never made a move” without first asking: “Has this been cleared with Bill Smith?”
Born Aug. 26, 1917, in Wilton, N.H., Smith was a direct descendant of Uriah Oakes, the fourth president of Harvard College. His father, who died when Smith was 6, was president of the Mexican Telephone and Telegraph Co., whose headquarters were in Boston.
Smith graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley in 1939 and earned his law degree at Harvard in 1942. After World War II duty as an officer in the Naval Reserve, Smith broke away from his New England roots and settled in California. He had decided, he said, that his life “wasn’t going to be dictated to by my ancestors.”
He joined Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in 1946 and eventually headed its labor department, where he represented the firms blue-chip corporate clients in collective bargaining negotiations.
In 1968, Reagan appointed Smith to the University of California Board of Regents, where he reflected the then-governor’s hard-line views toward Vietnam War protesters. He opposed demands that the university discontinue nuclear weapons research, and he resisted efforts to force the university to divest itself of stock in countries doing business in South Africa.
Fred Dutton, a former official in the John F. Kennedy Administration who served as a UC regent with Smith, said the former attorney general’s philosophy “is that a small central establishment of a few people who have proven successful should run the rest of our lives.”
But other liberals on the board credited Smith with being free of ideological rigidity and willing to listen to all sides of any argument.
Once at the helm in the Justice Department, Smith systematically set about dismantling policies that had been in place for a generation.
In 1981, he summarized the direction in which he was taking the department:
“We have firmly enforced the law that forbids federal employees from striking. We have opposed the distortion of the meaning of equal protection by courts that mandate counterproductive busing and quotas. We have helped to select appointees to the federal bench who understand the meaning of judicial restraint.”
One of those appointees--one he took great pride in recruiting--is Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Smith was president of the California Chamber of Commerce from 1974 to 1975. He was a director of Pacific Telephone & Telegraph of San Francisco, Crocker National Bank and Crocker National Corp., Pacific Mutual Life Insurance of Los Angeles, Pacific Lighting Corp., Jorgensen Steel Corp. and Pullman Inc. of Chicago.
Smith’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1964 he married his second wife, Jean Webb. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Stephanie Smith Lorenzen; three sons, William, Scott and Gregory; a stepson, G. William Vaughan Jr.; a stepdaughter, Merry Vaughan Dunn, and seven grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.