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With Reagan: The Inside Story.

I never thought I would be nostalgic for Edwin Meese III, but the attorneys general succeeding him have lacked both his bumbling flair and symbolic poses. Who in the Bush years could inspire so memorable a slogan as "Meese Is a Pig"? (Remember the messenger whom security guards barred from entering the Justice Department because his T-shirt was emblazoned with that catchy statement?) VicePresident Dan QuayIe comes close to filling this role, but until he gains real power, it's tough to take him seriously. Meese, on the other hand, was the nation's top law enforcement officer. And no cabinet member since has so embodied the administration he served.

After the curtain fell on the Reagan era, Meese high-tailed it to a post at the Heritage Foundation and snagged a contract from a major New York publisher to write about his Reagan days. But when he refused to kiss and tell, the house quite wisely lost interest. Meese took his business to conservative publisher Regnery Gateway, and the result is With Reagan: The Inside Story. *

Meese is slavishly devoted to Ronald Reagan. According to the author, Reagan singlehandedly ushered in a golden age for America and the world. Through force of will and firm adherence to his conservative ideology, Meese's boss engineered a historic economic boom and the end of communism. And what's more, Reagan came on the scene just in the nick of time, because, as Meese sees it, America in 1980 was teetering on a precipice. Its "citizens, allies, and security interests seemed everywhere in danger," and the economy was just a step or two shy of doom.

In addition to portraying Reagan as America's savior, Meese's main task is to prove that Reagan was in control--that he was not an out-of-touch figurehead vulnerable to manipulation. Reagan was, Meese obsessively insists, a strong leader who knew his own mind.

I am prepared to accept that Reagan was in charge --even though he needed scripts for his photo ops with Girl Scouts. Meese obviously believes that an in-control Reagan deserves nothing but laurels for all that occurred during his administration. What of the errors and failures? Conveniently, Meese cannot recall many, and when he does, he is quick to assign culpability to those who would not let Reagan be Reagan. In other words, Reagan the decisive leader was not fully responsible when mistakes were made.

Reagan's biggest domestic achievement, Meese argues, was cutting taxes his first year in office. He has little to say about the deficits that Reagan bequeathed to America---except to note that the Democratic dunderheads in Congress did not cut spending enough. Reaganomics, in Meese's view, heralded the "longest peacetime economic expansion in the history of our nation"--a mantra he chants repeatedly. He marshals a host of often dubious statistics to prove that Reagan revived a sagging economy. My favorite statistical sleight-of-hand is his reliance on a chart that tracks disposable personal income. The table shows a 20 percent rise (in real terms) between 1981 and 1989. But the chart covers disposable income per capita, and not everyone makes the per capita amount. The latest census figures indicate that the percentage of the population with a middle-class income has declined. In 1979, 31 percent of American households had an income of $25,000 a year or less. In 1989, it was 42 percent.

One can engage in a statistical duel with Meese. For instance, who benefited most from Reaganomics? Between 1979 and 1990, the percentage of full-time workers whose incomes remained below the poverty line climbed from 12 to 18 percent, while the average salaries of millionaires rose 49.5 percent. But Meese barely addresses major changes that occurred while Reagan ran the nation: the increase in the trade deficit; the decline of inner-city economic life; the demise of heavy, high-wage industries; and the explosion in speculative, parasitical business activity. If Reagan was in charge, let's at least grant him partial credit for all of this.

But in With Reagan, it still is morning in America. There has been no S&L debacle and no HUD scandal. There is literally nothing Meese cannot justify. Spending billions on such white elephants as the B-1 and B-2 bombers weighs not an ounce on his conscience. He claims the Reagan-era military build-up not only brought the Soviets to their knees, but delivered the victory in Grenada and the 1986 raid against Qaddafi. He also disingenuously attributes the United States' success in the Gulf war to the Reagan defense budget, but he forgets to discuss the Reagan administration's attempt to cozy up to Saddam Hussein. As for Reagan's 1983 blunder in Lebanon, which ended with 241 Marines killed by a suicide bomber, Meese touches on this tragedy only long enough to pin the blame for the deaths on the State Department, not on the decisive commander-in-chief. Meese deems Reagan's resolve to invade Grenada right after the Lebanon bombing "remarkable." What is truly remarkable is that the Grenada action got Reagan off the hook for the Lebanon massacre.

Meese's observations about fellow Reaganauts are thin. Jeane Kirkpatrick, former ambassador to the United Nations, "spoke eloquently and forcefully in behalf of the rule of law." What of her efforts to court the torturing generals of Argentina? James Watt, the secretary of the interior with a taste for his own foot, is a "brilliant lawyer." When he notes Watt's resignation, Meese does not refer to the controversy that precipitated it. Oddly, there is scant mention of George Bush, and Meese has nothing to say about Nancy Reagan.

Meese clearly carries a grudge against the enemies within, the so-called pragmatists who encouraged Reagan to adjust to the established way of doing things in Washington. It was those damned pragmatists--Richard Darman, Michael Deaver, David Stockman, and James Baker--who persuaded Reagan to pave the way for a tax increase in 1982 to counter the deficit-causing tax cut of 1981. This "Debacle of 1982," Meese writes, was "the greatest mistake we made during the Reagan administration." But in telling the story of that betrayal, Meese unintentionally undermines his own portrait of Reagan. Darman and Deaver, he claims, blocked administration officials who opposed a tax hike from access to the Oval Office. They even went so far as to prevent Reagan from seeing copies of his favorite magazine, the archconservative Human Events. This is hardly a flattering account. In fact, it is frightening to think that White House decisions could have turned on such antics as hiding articles from the boss. But, ever the acolyte, Meese uses this episode to show that the fault lay with the aides, not the star.

He assails Secretary of State George Shultz for, among other things, not supporting aid to Jonas Savimbi and his anticommunist Angolan rebels. (Recent evidence has shed light on Savimbi's brutality.) But James Baker suffers the worst of Meese's sting. In recounting a Baker-Deaver plan in which Baker would become national security adviser, Meese notes that at a meeting with Reagan, CIA Director William Casey vividly expressed his opposition to it. "Mr. President," Casey supposedly exclaimed, "you can't have the biggest leaker in Washington as your national security adviser."

Mince Meese

Meese states early on that this is not a personal memoir. Because he does not write about his travails with independent counsel James McKay, who investigated allegations of misdeeds by Meese, it might not be fair to cover that ground in this review. But why be fair? After all, it was Meese who once said of criminal defendants, "You don't have many suspects who are innocent. That's contradictory." Moreover, in listing the ills of Washington, Meese rails against "consultants, lawyers, public relations people, and others" who make a living off the federal government. Yet Meese certainly did his bit for a certain pal who tried to suck money from the teat of government.

When E. Robert Wallach, a close friend and law school classmate, asked Meese to use his influence to help a private company (which later became Wedtech) obtain a federal contract, Meese, then counselor to the president, put one of his deputies on the case. At one point, Meese himself telephoned Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldridge about the firm's application. For helping the company (by using his White House contacts), Wallach eventually received compensation worth more than a million dollars. Later, around 1984, he provided Meese with free legal services when Meese's nomination for attorney general stalled due to allegations of financial impropriety. Independent counsel McKay found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the MeeseWedtech business, but the investigation was hampered when four key witnesses, including Wallach, embraced the Fifth.

Meese kept McKay busy. The independent counsel also investigated the management of Meese's blind trust; a conflict-of-interest involving decisions Meese made about the break-up of AT&T (Meese held stock in a Baby Bell company); Meese's failure to report capital gains; an unusual arrangement in which his wife's salary at a charitable organization was donated by a friend of Wallach's, a developer who hoped to keep the Justice Department as a tenant; and Meese's assistance to Wallach in the latter's efforts to win U.S. support for the construction of an Iraqi-Jordanian oil pipeline. In the pipeline episode, Wallach informed Meese that Bruce Rappaport, a wealthy Swiss industrialist, intended to funnel pipeline profits to Israel's Labor party. After learning that an illegal bribery scheme might be afoot, Meese took no steps to terminate U.S. involvement in the pipeline project nor to notify any government authority.

Of Meese and mendacity

In With Reagan, Meese devotes much attention to the Iran-contra scandal, but what appears to concern him most is how history will record his involvement in it. After details about the Iran initiative in which Reagan traded arms to Iran to pry loose the hostages and promote a strategic opening--began to emerge, Meese initiated his own probe into what had occurred. As he portrays it, his investigation was conducted merely to reconcile conflicting statements from administration officials and was responsible for unearthing evidence that Oliver North had diverted funds from the Iran weapons deal to the contras. What Meese leaves out could fill a chapter--and it does, in the report filed by the congressional Irancontra committees.

As that report notes, Meese chose political appointees, not the FBI or the criminal division of Justice, to handle the investigation; delayed his confrontation with North; ignored Shultz's warning that the Iran initiative and the contra operation were linked; held important interviews alone; and failed to take notes during key interviews. In a supplement to the Iran-contra report, four Democratic members of the House Iran-contra committee (yes, a partisan lot, but they argue persuasively) concluded, "Because of the attorney general's failure to act promptly to preserve documents and to conduct thorough interviews --and in some instances, any interviews--of the major actors in these events, we may never know the answers to many of the key questions that have been raised by this aftaft."

Ultimately, this apologia offers little insight into Meese's hero and his presidency. But for those who long for the good old Reagan days (and you know who you are), Meese's book offers a chance to relive them. Problems of government ethics are overlooked, penny-ante military wins are transformed into glorious crusades, vital subjects are ignored--and all is well.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

* With Reagan: The Inside Story. Edwin Meese III. Regnery Gateway, $24.95.
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Author:Corn, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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