For seven of the most important days of the Reagan presidency--as the White House chieftains heard the final budget appeals of Cabinet secretaries, rendered their verdicts, and grappled with the crisis in Poland--presidential counselor Edwin Meese III was otherwise occupied.
The president's supervisor of all policies foreign and domestic was in his home state of California, lecturing to school board officials and high school student leaders and the business elite of San Francisco.
And he was in Hawaii, lecturing to raise funds for the state university's law school and the state Republican Party's treasury.
And he was on the decks of the U.S. Navy's Third Fleet, inspecting the ships in the full dress company of the commander of the Pearl Harbor base.
His absence has caused concern and even consternation among the advisers Meese left behind, including the two other members of the triumvirate that rules the White House: chief of staff James A. Baker III and deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver.
They are said, by those who know them well, to be privately distressed at the frequency of Meese's absences in the cause of speechmaking, a situation that has existed for months but was felt most acutely this past week. Deaver, in particular, "was unhappy," according to one official to whom Deaver complained that he had not learned Meese would be going until the last minute. Deaver wound up sitting in, along with Baker and budget director David A. Stockman, on budget review board sessions he otherwise might not have attended.
After almost a year, there have been subtle shifts in the roles of the three men who head the White House command and the influence they exert upon the presidency.
Structurally, things are as they were back in the transition days when Baker, a wary newcomer to the Reagan camp, insisted upon drafting with Meese a single-page memorandum that outlined all of his roles in one column and all of Meese's functions in another. Meese is still presiding over Reagan's Cabinet government, a role that prompted some colleagues in the early months to privately dub him "the Prime Minister." Baker is in charge of operations and salesmanship, but not policy formulation.
(The document was initialed "EM" and "JAB III" and placed in a safe in Baker's office--an office that was specified in the memo. Clearly concerned that his prestige and power might later be eroded, Baker had it set out in writing that he would have the corner West Wing office that has traditionally gone to the chief of staff.)
But actually, Baker's influence in the shaping of policy has increased, especially as he has made his presence felt in budget decisions and compromises with Congress, where the ultimate course of Reaganomics has been set.
And Deaver recently has begun to exert a more visible impact in areas of substance. He is heading a small group that is deciding what programs should be included in Reagan's 1982 State of the Union address, with an eye to announcing a few new but modest programs, especially in the area of job creation. Reagan advisers hope these will put a more positive image on the negative news of recession, deficits and budget cuts that they fear will dominate the first half of the election year.
Within the White House, many top and middle-echelon officials say they are perplexed and troubled by Meese's frequent absences, especially during this latest period of budget cutting and international crises. And a number of them wonder whether their prime minister is somehow seeking to disengage himself from the daily ministering of policy.
Inside the Reagan circle, there is considerable agreement that Meese continues to hold the highest confidence of the president and the respect of his colleagues, and that Meese can be just as influential as he wants to be. But there is considerable question over just what Meese wants.
"Each time he goes away, the communications to Baker and Deaver increase and the influence of Baker and Deaver increases," said one senior official who has known Meese for years.
"I find it pretty surprising," said another official, a senior member of the White House staff. "A lot of people on the staff are talking about it, but no one understands it."
As Meese sees it, there is nothing to understand.
In the case of his most recent absences, he said, he was merely keeping some longstanding speaking commitments. "I had a major opportunity to present our position to audiences that we felt would be supportive" of administration positions on education, Meese said.
He said it did not matter that he missed the daily budget review meetings with Cabinet secretaries, or that he missed two meetings with the president at which budget decisions were made. "I'd gone in beforehand and gotten my views to the president," said Meese. "So in effect, I had participated."
When the White House Situation Room received word at 7:51 p.m. last Saturday that the Polish army had moved suddenly to shut down the Solidarity movement, Adm. James W. Nance, who is the acting national security adviser in the absence of Richard V. Allen, did not call his boss, Meese. He called Vice President Bush instead.
"Normally, I'd call the White House switchboard and ask for Ed Meese--and then the vice president," said Nance. "But Ed Meese was out west."
When word of the crisis reached Hawaii, Meese said, "I called the White House to see if it was necessary to return." He said he was assured that he did not need to cut his trip short.
Meese said he was kept apprised of the crisis in Poland by telephone and by a secure telex line that fed dispatches into the FBI office in Hawaii, from which they were hand-delivered to him by Secret Service agents. Meese arrived back in Washington on a red-eye flight early Wednesday morning.
The counselor to the president says emphatically that he has not lost his interest in his White House job, and that he is not looking to move on to another post.
"Actually I think it's more fun now than ever before," he said. "This job has worked out extremely well for me. And as I get into new foreign policy areas, it will be even more interesting."
When they meet for breakfast at 7:30 each weekday morning, in Baker's corner office, the president's top three advisers are said to conduct their business in an atmosphere of considerable friendship and frankness. But there are some things they don't say.
Baker, for example, is said to think that the system would work better if the national security adviser's post was elevated out from under Meese's jurisdiction. So does Deaver. But neither apparently has ever said that to Meese. And even the president, who does not attend those early morning breakfasts, is said to share that view, but has not communicated it to his counselor.
"No, I've never heard it mentioned by anybody," Meese said when asked if the idea had ever been broached to him. "Nobody at the top has entertained such an idea," he added. "Nobody would suggest it--any more than they would suggest that the legislative guy could be elevated congressional liaison is under Baker or the military aide who is under Deaver or the domestic policy adviser who is under Meese ."
Even though the triad has functioned more smoothly than most of Washington believed possible, it is not without its closely held strains. Currently, Deaver and Baker are both said to feel that Meese damaged the president's image by continuing to support Allen and by ordering that even innocuous information about the affair be withheld from the media. This permitted the story to drag on, with minor new disclosures daily.
Weeks ago, for instance, a reporter telephoned Meese to say that he had been told by a source that it was Meese who had asked the FBI to investigate the case after the $1,000 was found in a White House safe.
"I wouldn't print that, if I were you," Meese cautioned. "You can't be talking to anyone who knows." Eventually, the White House spokesmen and a Justice Department report had to resolve the mystery of who alerted the attorney general: It was Allen's main supporter, Meese.