ATTORNEY-GENERAL Edwin Meese III and William Bradford Reynolds, the Justice Department's civil rights chief, and Meese's choice for deputy attorney general, have several things in common, none more bonding than their ordeals before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The difference is that Meese was finally confirmed for his appointment and Reynolds was not. But the right wing is not taking his rejection lying down. They had a tribute to him, attended by 750 people, at the Hyatt-Regency the other night, and his chief fan, the attorney-general, was the principal speaker.
Any testimonial dinner, of course, occasions rhetoric that taxes belief at the top rate. But the Reynolds affair, billed as a salute to "an American hero, made ordinary hyperbole seem like the naked truth.
Reynolds, the man, was described variously as "an idealist," a martyr "cruelly defamed," "sensitive and friendly," "remarkable," "outstanding," "positively incandescent" and an "original cut- up." The last epithet was provided by Madeleine Will, assistant secretary of the Department of Education, who gave vivid examples of Reynolds' youthful, explosive high spirits -- as a boy he had bombed his high school librarian's car. The far right always enjoys a show of direct action.
But it was when the speakers ventured to describe Reynolds in his official capacity, as a crusader for civil rights, and champion of the blacks, that the boundary between the allowable and the preposterous was breached, and the evening became an expedition into unreality.
Clarence Pendleton, chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, one of three blacks at the head table, spoke of Reynolds' admirable contempt for affirmative action, and his adherence to the "principle that rights adhere to individuals, not groups."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) however, clinched the evening's honors for excess when he declared, "It may be said of Brad Reynolds, and President Reagan, decades from today, that they did more to free the nation of policies of prejudice than any other policy-maker since Abraham Lincoln."
The attorney-general in his turn matched, although did not exceed, Hatch by announcing that "Brad Reynolds has proved to be nothing less than the most powerful advocate of civil rights in our time." So much for Martin Luther King, with whom Reynolds breathtakingly compared himself in a recent interview. He was, Reynolds averred, "pretty much in lockstep" with King and other civil rights leaders in the '60s.
With the far right it isn't "wishing that makes it so." It is saying it over and over, until people grow weary of contradicting and resignation sets in.
Meese referred to Reynolds' rejection in terms of "shameful actions and sad events."
"The people here refuse to be silent," he said and went on to speak of Reynolds' patriotic adherence to "our belief that all Americans are distinct individuals" -- the right-wing gloss for its attempts to put the clock back on civil rights.
The facts of Reynolds' rejection were, of course, barred from the banquet hall. The Senate Judiciary Committee turned him down because of his record of militant non-enforcement of the civil rights laws; for, among other things, the clumsy effort, initiated by Meese, then a White House aide, to give segregated Bob Jones University a tax break, and the assault on the Voting Rights Act.
None of this was quite sufficient, since Reagan has made it bad form to reject his odd appointees for "ideology." Reynolds made it easier for the dissident Republicans on the committee by misrepresenting the facts in a redistricting case. The black leaders he insisted he had consulted took the stand and testified that he had lied.
Meese termed the rejection the work of "a pernicious lobby." Reynolds is back at the civil rights division as if nothing had happened.
Meese's experience was happier, at least for him. The senators grilled him about his finances in the light of revelations about appointments to federal office of people who had loaned him money.
Now, of course, they wish they had spent more time examining his mind and his ambition. Since he took office, Meese has shown that he is more than a blunt instrument for the enforcement of Reagan policies. He has stepped forward, improbably, as a constitutional scholar, cloaking his anger at Supreme Court decisions inimical to the conservative point of view in pious claims of devotion to the doctrine of "original intent."
Meese will be the guiding hand in choosing the federal judiciary. That will matter most in any selection of Supreme Court justices. He wishes to be one himself. It is a chilling thought. Any man who calls Reynolds "the most powerful civil rights advocate of our time," even at a testimonial, shows little judgment.