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The Roots of Ed Meese : Reagan's Polemical Attorney General Has Prompted a Major Constitutional Debate, Surprising Those Who Knew Him in His Pragmatic Early Days, in the Quiet Hills of Oakland and During the Turbulent '60s

May 04, 1986|KATE COLEMAN | Kate Coleman, a Berkeley writer who teaches journalism at UC Santa Cruz, participated in the 1960s Free Speech Movement

"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.

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