IN JANUARY 1982, when the administration made a huge political blunder by defending tax breaks for segregated schools, Edwin Meese III assured the country that President Reagan knew nothing about the new policy.

Meese, then the president's counselor, said that he had decided -- without Reagan's approval -- to revoke a 12-year-old policy of denying tax exemptions to schools that dis-criminate against blacks in a court case involving Bob Jones University.

Reagan told a different story at a news conference three days later, saying: "I'm the originator of the whole thing." Reagan said he would not have changed the policy if he had known that there was "a legal case pending" before the Supreme Court.

Two days later, a memo leaked. Written by a White House aide to the president several weeks before the policy shift was announced, it revealed that a Republican congressman had written Reagan and urged him to intervene in the Bob Jones case. "I think we should," Reagan scribbled in the margin.

If all this sounds reminiscent of the tangled testimony, failed memories and grudging admissions of the Iran-contra affair, it is not by accident. Although many view the Iran saga as a kind of bizarre aberration, it is actually illustrative of the way the Justice Department has worked in the Reagan administration and especially under Meese.

Dissembling and even outright lying has been elevated to an instrument of policy. The law has been twisted out of shape, and a naked contempt for Congress and its restrictions is the engine driving Meese and his associates down roads that circumvent the Capitol.

Attorney General Meese's idiosyncratic approach to law enforcement will come under renewed scrutiny this week when he testifies before the congressional Iran-contra panels.

It is hardly a coincidence that Meese provided a legal opinion to the White House -- oral, of course -- that Reagan did not have to notify Congress about the secret arms sales to Iran. Meese & Co. believe that the president has an inherent constitutional right to do just about anything he wants, notwithstanding any carping from the other two branches of government.

Meese is not a man who lets procedural obstacles stand in his way. When they do, he looks for a way around them. Results are what count for him, not the questionable detours he takes in achieving them.

Ed Meese is a widely caricatured figure, a man with the image of an amiable bumbler whose lapses in judgment have brought fortune to some of his friends while embroiling him in three independent counsel investigations.

That image is off the mark. In fact, there is much to admire about Meese. Unlike so many who pass through government service, he is a man who believes in something and fights, relentlessly, for his vision of government. A career prosecutor of modest means, it is hard to imagine Meese plunging into the get-rich-quick world of lobbying like Michael Deaver.

Nor is Meese a mere popoff artist. When he makes controversy, it is premeditated, not inadvertent. He is a tough, smart partisan who says what he means and is quick to attack anyone who disagrees as ignorant or politically motivated.

And therein lies the root of what is most troubling about Meese. I have written about the Justice Department on and off for nearly a decade, and I have covered Meese since he became attorney general in 1985. The heart of the matter for me is that he often seems to forget that he is the nation's chief law-enforcement officer, acting instead as the president's political agent. He has a blind spot for the distinction between the two in a way that Edward Levi or Benjamin Civiletti or William French Smith did not.

Forget for a moment about Meese's assistance to Wedtech, a firm represented by one of his oldest friends. Forget about the $15,000 no-interest loan from another friend who ended up with a federal job. On matters large and small, Meese seems to display unmitigated contempt -- contempt for established mores, contempt for meddling lawmakers and activist judges, contempt for liberals, contempt for the press, contempt for telling the truth without a political spin.

The plain fact is that Meese thinks nothing of bending the facts when it serves his interests. He views himself as under never-ending assault from his political enemies, and when it comes to fighting back, anything goes.

Remember Meese's comment, in a tape-recorded magazine interview, that "you don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime"? In the ensuing flap, Meese's spokesman said the attorney general had misspoken, although Meese had reviewed the transcript before publication. Yet months later, when Meese was asked about the comment in a television interview, he said he had been "misquoted."

And Meese rarely misses a chance to thumb his nose at Congress. When a Senate committee rejected a promotion for Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, Meese denounced his civil rights opponents as a "pernicious lobby," promptly expanded Reynolds' authority and gave him a second appointment as the attorney general's "counselor."

A further examination of this pattern makes it a bit harder to have confidence in Meese when, five years after the Bob Jones episode, he again assured the nation of the president's lack of involvement, this time in an Iran-contra operation being run out of the White House basement. Indeed, recent testimony indicates that Meese repeated part of what he had reason to know was an administration cover story on the Iran-arms deal at his televised press conference last November.

In 1983, Meese was the point man in a drawn-out battle over the Civil Rights Commission. The president, on Meese's advice, angered Congress by firing three critics on the traditionally independent panel. After months of negotiations with Meese, senior members of Congress agreed to a revamped commission in which they would name half the members and the president the other half.

An explicit part of the agreement, announced by a group of senators, was that one Reagan appointee would be Mary Louise Smith, a Republican member of the old commission. But, to assure its control, the White House bypassed Smith in favor of a more conservative choice, prompting charges that Meese had repudiated the agreement.

Meese has shown an equal lack of respect for the judicial branch. In a speech last fall, he declared that Supreme Court rulings should not be viewed as the "supreme law of the land" and that its decisions are "not binding in the same way that the Constitution is."

When critics raised an uproar, Meese beat a semantic retreat, saying his remarks had been misinterpreted and listing all the things he did not mean to say. He said he was suggesting only that citizens may disagree with questionable Supreme Court rulings. But if the attorney general's message is so unremarkable, why does he continue to make these inflammatory speeches?

Other evidence suggests that Meese's goal is nothing less than redefining the balance of power between the branches. For 200 years, the courts have tried to divine "legislative intent" in deciding whether laws pass constitutional muster. Meese has added a new wrinkle, the presidential signing statement, in which the chief executive sets forth his view of each new law.

Meese's aides conceived and promoted this vehicle as a way to give judges the president's interpretation. But it is members of Congress who write the laws and strike the compromises; the president's only choice under the Constitution is whether to sign.

These presidential declarations aren't empty rhetoric. In passing the immigration reform law last fall, Congress included provisions -- over the administration's objections -- requiring Justice to prosecute employers who discriminate against Americans or legal aliens because of national origin.

The law calls for legal action if there is "intentional discriminatory activity or a pattern or practice of discriminatory activity {emphasis added}." This formulation allows prosecution based on discriminatory effects, rather than setting the more difficult hurdle of discriminatory intent.

But in his Nov. 6 signing statement, Reagan said: "I understand section 274B to require a 'discriminatory intent' standard of proof." He then used carefully placed quotation marks to say that the bill referred to "'intentional discrimination' and 'a pattern or practice of discriminatory activity' {emphasis added}," as if both were required.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), sponsor of the provisions, called this presidential interpretation "the ultimate in last licks. We play a nine-inning game, and then the president will get up in the 14th inning, with no intervening innings, and score seven runs."

The extra innings didn't end there. In March, Meese and Reynolds announced proposed regulations for the law that require proof that an employer "knowingly and intentionally" discriminated -- the very intent standard that Congress had rejected.

Nor is this the first time Meese has tried to rewrite congressional history. In 1985, Senate Republican Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and nine colleagues told the Supreme Court in an amicus brief that the Justice Department had blatantly misrepresented the purpose of a voting rights law they had written.

The North Carolina redistricting case, Thornburgh v. Gingles, was the first Supreme Court test of the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, which the administration initially refused to support. The five Republicans and five Democrats argued that the amendments allowed local election plans to be found discriminatory if their result, regardless of their intent, is to dilute black voting power.

The lawmakers told the court that the Justice Department's position "was expressly rejected by Congress." But Justice's legal brief cited senators who had unsuccessfully opposed the amendments, and said the winning side's views should not be given "undue emphasis." After the court ruled against them, Meese and Reynolds again tried to install the intent test through regulations.

This resort to quoting the losing side in a legislative fight is all the more appalling because Meese has championed a "jurisprudence of original intent," arguing that the Constitution must be strictly interpreted according to the intent of its framers. This position is convenient when the authors are not around to contradict you. But Meese's fidelity to original intent seems to fade when modern legislation is at stake and living, breathing lawmakers like Dole pop up to say what they meant when they wrote the bill.

The most recent Meese end-run came when he unsuccessfully tried to pressure the U.S. Sentencing Commission into reviving the death penalty for federal crimes, something Congress has refused to do. In fact, lawmakers of both parties deliberately excluded the divisive issue from the commission's mandate when they created it in 1984 to write sentencing guidelines.

Again, legislative intent fell by the wayside as a top Meese aide, Assistant Attorney General Charles J. Cooper, produced a tortured analysis that said the sentencing panel could reinstate the death penalty because Congress had not specifically forbidden it.

Meese told a Senate hearing that Justice was merely responding to a request for a legal opinion. He neglected to mention that his aides were actively lobbying commission members to resuscitate the death penalty.

Some of this sort of deviousness flourished at the Reagan Justice Department before Meese's arrival, and he has continued the tradition. There is, for example, the "theory of non-acquiescence." This mild-sounding form of defiance surfaced when Justice began defending the Health and Human Services Department as it cut off Social Security benefits to hundreds of thousands of disabled people.

Beginning in 1981, the Justice Department refused to consider a court decision in one person's case as binding in other, similar cases. The policy forced disabled beneficiaries to sue the government, one by one, to have their benefits restored, even after thousands of people won appellate court rulings that their benefits had been improperly terminated. A federal judge declared the policy unconstitutional in 1985 and Meese aides say they have abandoned it, a claim disputed by opponents.

Another case in point is Meese's hostility to the independent counsel law, which Justice officials have attacked as unconstitutional. In an investigation stemming from Justice's refusal to turn over Environmental Protection Agency documents to Congress, Meese was widely castigated for exonerating a former deputy attorney general on grounds that he had no "criminal intent" -- a judgment that by law is supposed to be left to a special prosecutor.

Meese did call for a prosecutor to investigate another former official, and that prosecutor rebuked Meese for refusing to disqualify himself from the case because he had participated in White House meetings on the EPA dispute.

Meese also saw no need to bow out of the decision to seek an independent probe of the Iran-contra affair, even though he had provided legal advice on the arms sales to Iran. When Reagan was criticized for not issuing a written decision, Meese responded with a Cooper opinion that the law did not require that the president's finding "be reduced to writing or indeed that it be articulated in so many words."

What of Reagan's failure to tell Congress of the arms sales for 18 months, despite an intelligence notification law requiring him to do so "in a timely fashion"?

"We now conclude that the vague phrase 'in a timely fashion' should be construed to leave the president wide discretion to choose a reasonable moment for notifying Congress," Cooper wrote. In Meese's world, any restriction imposed by Congress can be waved aside by executive fiat.

To me, all that is wrong with Meese's stewardship can be seen in his bungled fact-finding inquiry into the Iran-contra operation. That's the one where he didn't bring in criminal prosecutors, didn't ask his friend William Casey about the diversion scheme, didn't secure offices until Oliver North had shredded piles of documents.

North, asked if he had obstructed a federal investigation, said he thought Meese was acting in his role as the president's "friend." The rest of us are never quite sure, either.

Howard Kurtz, a Washington Post reporter, recently completed an assignment covering the Justice Department.