Those citizens who like their newspaper editorials flavored with bluntness and old-fashioned what-the-hell-is-going-on-here anger ought to read what is being said about the nomination of Edwin Meese III for attorney general.
Here is a sampling:
* The Seattle Times: "About the best that can be said of Meese is that he has been politically loyal to Reagan. If the Senate does indeed confirm his appointment, it will be sad commentary on the system for determining fitness for high public office." The Parsons (Kansas) Sun:
* "When ethics were ladled out, Meese was playing golf."
* The St. Petersburg Times: "Someone who has been so openly contemptuous of civil rights is implausibly cast as head of the department that's supposed to enforce civil rights. Someone who has so often been blind to the appearance of conflict of interest on his own part is an unacceptable candidate to police the ethics of others."
* The Davenport, Iowa, Quad-City Times: "Meese simply isn't attorney-general material. That's plain enough to Americans. It should be plain enough to Reagan and, if not, then to a Senate that should demand a higher standard."
These editorials are not the ball-swings of a liberal wrecking crew out for an aimless demolition of a conservative. The Meese nomination, as opposed by numerous mainline newspapers, is a case of right or wrong, not right or left. What's wrong about it, as editorial after editorial argues, is that Meese's money deals, buddyism, poor memory and lack of experience would disgrace the Justice Department. Meese's character is not so low as some former attorneys general -- Richard Kleindienst and the imprisoned John Mitchell -- but it hunkers at such a slouched level that honor and integrity are not terms the newspapers are using to describe the nominee.
The editorial assault began well before the latest Meese hustle: a request for reimbursement of $720,924 in legal fees. Meese ran up this huge bill by calling on $250-an-hour and lesser-paid lawyers to guide him through last year's investigation of his money deals. Under the Ethics in Government Act, public officials, in certain circumstances, can be reimbursed.
Expensive tastes in lawyers aren't what might be expected from an ambitious official of an administration that shouts into every open ear that government spending is the curse of Washington. Meese, one of the last right-wing ideologues still in the Reagan White House, decided for once in his life to act the way he thinks liberals act: throw money at a problem. Since it was his own problem and since the government, i.e. the public, might well be picking up the lavish bill, why scrimp? What's a little deficit spending in your personal life, too?
One unsolved difficulty in Meese's latest money mess is that the law calls for reimbursement of the legal fees. Meese has yet to pay his bill, so how can he be paid back? Leonard Garment, one of the $250-an-hour lawyers in the firm that spent more than 7,000 hours in protecting its client, acknowledges that a person can't be reimbursed if he hasn't imbursed in the first place. He treats this contradiction as a technical matter, saying that the law is complicated and all that. Tell that to the editorial writer at the Parsons Sun.
When I asked Garment why Meese didn't seek the services of a less expensive lawyer, he said, in the best tones of quality umbrage, "What, and lose his case?" Garment is a former counsel to Richard Nixon, which now entitles him to be called an old Washington hand. He no doubt gave Meese a full dollar but so probably would have any number of competent lawyers of lower rate and profile. The Justice Department that Meese believes he is uniquely qualified to head has a $75-an-hour limit for private lawyers hired by federal employees.
Meese could have gone lower than $75 by turning to a lawyer from the Legal Services Corp., the program he and Reagan tried to kill 10 years ago in California and which they have opposed ever since. Some rich-folk casework is just the kind of experience the young Legal Services lawyers need, now that Ronald Reagan says the poor are better off and are known -- as Meese has reliably told us -- to be freeloading at the soup kitchens.
When this venal character first sought to become attorney general, it wasn't much more than a case of gall. Now that it's become worse -- asking the government to go on a spending spree to cover his extravagance -- gall is coated with nerve.