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."