LOS ANGELES -- William French Smith's death here on Oct.29 marks the end of a remarkable era of political innocence that is unlikely to come again.
Smith was Ronald Reagan's longtime legal adviser and first-term attorney general. He was no bundle of laughs. A shy man and a poor public speaker, he spent his years in Washington as an unhappy visitor from a distant country club. He lived in a downtown hotel the entire time he served in the Justice Department and could never wait to get home to Los Angeles.
George Will once wrote of Smith that he resembled "an objet d'art that might be advertised in The New Yorker magazine, a sleek figurine called 'The Attorney,' manufactured by one of those companies that produce porcelain owls and bullfinches." Other Cabinet members found Smith distant and reserved.
But Smith was probably the most effective member of the Californians Reagan brought with him to Washington. The liberal judicial analyst Steven Brill once said that Smith was in his quiet way "the most effective attorney general to serve since an equally unprepared Robert Kennedy was named to the post in 1960." Brill gave Smith credit for gaining control of the Justice Department "mega-bureaucracy" and for cleaning up the corruption-plagued Drug Enforcement Administration. Smith established a judicial selection system that appears to have produced conservative but qualified federal judges.
Although Smith was a conservative and a Republican partisan, he was the least ideological member of the Reagan crowd. As Brill observed, Smith's commitment to the Reagan agenda didnot prevent him from displaying independence when this was necessary to perform his job as "impartial law enforcer." Smith played a major role in selecting moderate conservative Sandra Day O'Connor for the Supreme Court at a time the right wing longed for a justice in the mold of the later-rejected Robert Bork.
Smith also brought an ethical tone to the Justice Department that it conspicuously lacked during the reign of his successor, Edwin Meese. The most frequent complaint about Smith at the White House was that he would always do what he thought was right, no matter what the political consequences. Smith was correct in considering this a compliment.
He was not always right, of course, and he sometimes typified the Reagan administration's horrible insensitivity on civil rights issues. His worst decision was a recommendation in the case of Bob Jones University to reverse a decade-long U.S. policy of opposing tax exemptions for segregated religious schools. What is most often remembered about this case is that Smith believed the law entitled the schools to the tax exemption. What is rarely remembered is that Smith also recommended changing the law to prevent the segregated schools from getting a tax break.
Smith was a Harvard man among entrepreneurs in the "Kitchen Cabinet" of self-made millionaires who hitched their wagons to the star of a washed-up former actor named Ronald Reagan. They liked Reagan's message and the way he talked. The Democrats treated them with such contempt that some of them tried to see that Reagan was nominated for the California governorship in 1966 on grounds he would be the easiest opponent for incumbent Democrat Pat Brown.
Few members of the Kitchen Cabinet remain alive. Its leader, Los Angeles auto dealer Holmes Tuttle, passed away last year. Pharmacy magnate Justin Dart died years ago. Now, Bill Smith is gone. The passing of the Kitchen Cabinet marks the end of an era.
In contrast to Ronald Reagan, the two candidates for governor of California this year were orthodox politicians who ran as part of the system, not against it. Neither Republican Pete Wilson nor Democrat Dianne Feinstein is a "citizen politician," as Reagan liked to call himself, and neither tried to start at the top as Reagan did. No doubt both were more knowledgeable than Reagan was in 1966, when he was asked what kind of governor he would make. "I don't know," he said honestly. "I never played a governor."
But there was a sense of adventure and mission to the Reagan candidacy that is absent in California politics today. The Kitchen Cabinet had a lot to do with that, and William French Smith had a lot to do with the Kitchen Cabinet. For better or for worse, we are unlikely to have such politics again.