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With a P.R. Fanfare, Meese Orchestrates His own Exit

July 10, 1988|David M. O'Brien | David M. O'Brien, a government professor at the University of Virginia, is the author of "Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics" (Norton)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Edwin Meese III has often been dismissed as a caricature--a bumbling attorney general, insensitive to ethical proprieties and ideologically bent on tipping the scales of justice. Yet in returning to Sacramento last week for a press conference announcing he will step down within a month, Meese proved, once again, that he is a public-relations man first and foremost.

It is not just that his departure could hardly be more opportune for him and the Republican Party. It underscores Meese's unrelenting attempt to manipulate public opinion--his practice throughout his years in office. Meese turned his postion into a podium for advancing political causes cherished by the New Right.

Meese's confrontational style and provocative stances always aimed to capture media attention. He thus defended tax breaks for racially segregated schools and championed the overturn of the Supreme Court's 1973 abortion ruling, the elimination ofnate affirmative action and the reinstitution of school prayer. He was also strong on "law and order" and tough on such rulings as Miranda. As he once said, "you don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime."

As a P.R. man, Meese enjoyed considerable success. There is, perhaps, no better measure than his 1985 call for a "return to a jurisprudence of original intention"--meaning that judges confine their interpretation of the Constitution to its text and the views of the Founding Fathers, producing the extreme conservative decisions so prized by the New Right. Though such an approach is methodologically insufficient--as even Justice Anthony M. Kennedy conceded during his confirmation hearings--Meese provoked a public debate in the legal community that will continue for years to come.

Meese's P.R. campaigns endeared him to the New Right--until recently. They began turning on him last year--but not because of allegations about illegal and unethical conduct. Meese's sin, according to conservatives, was that he failed to deliver what he promised as the Administration's keeper of the ideological flame. So they joined the moderate Republicans and Democrats demanding his resignation. Yet Meese retained one important asset: He was Ronald Reagan's oldest and closest adviser.

Meese was neither our most corrupt attorney general nor even the most politically driven. Richard M. Nixon's attorney general, John N. Mitchell, was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice during Watergate. And in the scandal-ridden Administration of Republican President Warren G. Harding, Atty. Gen. Harry M. Daugherty was tried for his role in the Teapot Dome conspiracy.

Meese's self-righteous crusade, nonetheless, had a corrupting influence on the Justice Department. The department became highly politicized, with rigorous ideological screening of judicial nominees and extreme litigation policies. Meese and his men aimed to turn the clock back on advances in civil rights and in returning to the deregulated days of big business.

Meese's preoccupation with public relations in pursuit of his political agenda finally sapped the department's morale. Early on it drove respected career attorneys from Justice. Meese's top men--includingDeputy Atty. Gen. Arnold I. Burns--resigned. Meese then turned on his own strongest supporters--firing his director of public affairs, Terry Eastland, for not defending him ardently enough.

The Meese record is marred not only by controversy over personal affairs, but by political failure. His major accomplishment lies in helping to pack close to half the federal bench with conservative jurists. But still he failed to persuade the Supreme Court to end abortion and affirmative action, to re-establish school prayer and take up other New Right goals. When the chance to "lock in the Reagan revolution" on the court came last year, Meese's mismanagement was blamed for the Administration's resounding default. The spectacle of Judge Robert H. Bork's defeat by the widest margin ever; the hasty second choice of Judge Robert H. Ginsburg, who was forced to withdraw in embarrassment and, finally, the acceptance of Kennedy, who pleased few "movement conservatives"--all were seen products of Meese bungling. There were other failures. The war on drugs never became a reality. Battles against pornography and to resurrect states' rights were more media-events than anything else. And they came on top of Meese's involvement in the Iran-Contra affair and questionable business dealings.

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