The following exchange between Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III took place yesterday in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Mr. Meese's nomination to be attorney general. It seemed to us to touch the core issue.

Biden:. . . I'll only take about 10 minutes, Mr. Chairman, and then I won't say anymore, and I want to say this with Mr. Meese here and not after the fact; that's why I'm doing it now.

I began to ask myself, Why is this the hardest, most difficult nomination that I have been confronted with in 12 years in the U.S. Senate? Why, for me, was it so difficult? And it wasn't until just after lunch, when I got back here, that it all of a sudden became clear to me what's been bothering me so much for the last year.

Mr. Meese, I think it's fair to say -- and some of my colleagues might say it slightly differently -- I think it's fair to say I've been fair in the sense that I have not gone after you. As a matter of fact, my Democratic colleagues -- some on occasion, most I suspect -- have felt that maybe I wasn't, you know, fulfilling my role as the ranking Democrat on this committee and "going after you enough," or being tough enough, or whatever.

And it's just recently become clear to me why this has been so difficult for me to resolve. I've been disturbed by the fact that you, in my view, have been a victim of some in and out of government, in and out of the press, who have opposed you, in fact, on ideological grounds, but they've gone after you on non-ideological grounds and done it, in my view, unfairly on occasion. . . .

And my reaction to that treatment of you offended my sensibilities and, I think, in retrospect, blinded me a little bit as to why I was having difficulties. In addition, I found myself reacting to the hypocrisy of some who, in and out of the press, in and out of politics, who have never felt the pressure of being in the position of finding it is as hard to find $500 for their family as it was to find $500,000. I think that also blurred my vision a little bit.

And in addition, to be very completely candid about this, I've felt a sense of kinship with you because of your family situation, which is not unlike mine. And that, I think, also blurred my vision a little bit.

But I concluded that you are a personable and likable man. I've concluded you've done no criminal wrong, and I don't believe you're unethical. And I couldn't figure out why I'm going through all this detail with you, in the office and out of the office, about your ethical standards and why it was bothering me so much, and yet I'd sit in staff meetings and they'd point out this and that and the other thing, and I talked to the Common Cause people who'd come and see me and so on, and I just never found the case. . . . I've not been able to conclude in my mind that you are an unethical man. I've not been able to make that conclusion.

So if all those things are there, why, why do I find it so difficult to vote for you? And I finally figured it out. It relates less to you than it does to the office of attorney general. I think some would say that I probably -- and some will comment after my comments here -- that I have maybe an idealistic and unrealistic view of the office of attorney general. But I think it should be occupied by a person of extraordinary stature and character.

I thought to myself that Ronald Reagan, a man whom I have deep philosophic disagreement with -- why it is in spite of it I like him? And why is it that a man like Nixon, who forgot more about foreign policy, in my view, than Ronald Reagan will ever know, why is it that I had such a distaste for him? And I thought of things like: I can't picture Ronald Reagan coming out of the presidency and selling David Frost an interview; I can't picture him doing that under any circumstances. Richard Nixon did it. . . .

I don't think that it is sufficient to be ethical and noncriminal to hold a job. There are many people in this town and people who work in this body and people who are covering you in the press who are the kind of people that, if they under their contract had seven days' sick leave left and two days' vacation left -- even though it was budget time and everybody else in the office would be breaking their neck -- they would act not unethically, not illegally, they'd insist on their two days. I couldn't say they're unethical, I couldn't say that they did something illegal, but something would bother me about that.

And as I sat and listened the last two days to your answers to questions . . . I concluded that you have not committed any wrong per se. For example, it's not unethical, in my view, it's not illegal for you to have gone on active reserve and been promoted to colonel in light of the facts that you knew at the time. But it does bother me, and I believe it is beneath the person who holds -- should hold -- the office of attorney general that, after knowing what the Army did, to go out of their way in fact to grant you special favors -- no matter how you cut it, it was a special favor -- and then not give up your commission, not go back to lieutenant colonel, not give up your commission to be attorney general of the United States of America, I think that's beneath the office.

I think your refusal to recuse yourself or at least acknowledge the extent of your involvement with Mr. McKean, even in the unofficial meeting of everyone around the table, is beneath the office. It is not unethical, it is not illegal; I think it's beneath the office.

And I think your willingness to get reimbursement that you didn't expect to get when you were working on the transition team, even though you deserved it, even though you did the work, even though it was ethical and even though it was technically correct, in my view, I think it's beneath the person who should hold the office.

Your involvement with Mr. Barrack, in my view, is not illegal, is not even unethical. Most of the folks around here can't understand it -- there are people who just want to help and there's nothing, there's no return of a favor. But it bothers me a great deal that, when the time came, the second time around with Mr. Barrack, getting the second appointment, where it came up before the group on which you sat, were you not to say, "By the way, that guy helped me out." I don't mean "helped me out" in terms of "he lost money." I argued for four hours with my staff in a shouting match, how they can't understand that that $86,000 that Barrack ended up pulling out of his pocket as a consequence of giving it to Elkin as a gift was something a decent man might do and that you would have no part of. I believe that. I honest to God believe that.

But what bothers me is that when it came time for you to act on him in any way, that you wouldn't just say to everybody around, "Hey, by the way" -- even if you didn't know about the $86,000, even if you didn't know anything, even if you didn't know anything other than your wife thought he wore a halo, which I can understand. Nothing more: to say, "You know, this guy really did me a big favor."

I think that's beneath the office. I don't think it's beneath the office of counselor to the president. I don't think it's beneath the office of assistant whatever. But the attorney general, unlike anyone other than possibly a Supreme Court justice, it's not so much their importance constitutionally, but they are in fact implicitly, they are supposed to be, in my view, to be the beacon, the citadel of what young lawyers should aspire to. And I would expect more. I would want the young lawyers of this country to aspire to the standard that says, "I must, in fact, say, this guy did me a favor. I must, in fact, give up my colonelcy. I must in fact -- " etc., etc.

And, like I said, I've been here 12 years, some of my colleagues have been here that long with me. And I think it's fair to say -- it may be self-serving, I guess -- but I don't think I've ever been this troubled by anything that I've said in the Senate, because I really sympathize with you. I think you are in an awful Catch-22 position.

Like the attorney's fees: what in the hell -- heck -- can you do? What can you possibly do? What's gonna happen is they're gonna turn around and, if the law firm says, "We'll take 300 (thousand), if that's what the court gives," people are gonna say, "You better recuse yourself of everything having to do with that law firm, they've done you a favor, there's a $400,000 difference." On the other hand, if you say, "I'll keep that obligation," they're gonna say, "Ah ha, they got you on the hook." And that's what I kept reacting to, those kinds of things.

But now, as I said, and I'll conclude, to me, Ed -- Mr. Meese -- the office requires not just an honest and ethical man, which I believe you are. I don't think you consciously sat down and ever did anything wrong, and I don't think you would for a minute. And I mean this sincerely -- I hope you know this. I don't think for a minute, when you're attorney general, that you will wander one one- hundredth of an inch beyond the line of what is in fact legal and technically required. I have no doubt about that. But it's an attitude.

And I finally figured out also why I said to you in my office, "Why don't you just acknowledge that you can understand why people think what you've done is -- " and so on. And I know what it is for me, and it is that it's just not a high enough standard.

I don't buy that you're unethical, and I don't buy that you broke the law. I just think I want a man or a woman as attorney general who would have said to Se. DeConcini: "You know, senator, I see it now. I'm giving up my colonelcy. Even though I want to be colonel, even though I want to go back to active reserve, even though I want that, I can see how it all looks, and to be attorney general of the United States of America, for me, a lawyer, is the highest honor that could ever befall me other than being possibly president of the United States or Supreme Court justice, and so I'm gonna give it up."

So, since I know these facts inside out and backward and since I'm convinced that there's nothing that you've done that's unethical, I will politely sit here and listen to Archibald Cox and everyone else, and unless they come up with something that's not in here, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference to me now, because for me it relates to a higher standard that you have demonstrated to me in your responses you are not willing to step up to, even though you're ethical, and even though you have not violated any law -- inadvertently or advertently.

Thanks for the time, Mr. Chairman. I yield the floor.

Meese:Mr. Chairman, may I respond?

Chairman:You may respond, Mr. Meese.

Meese: Senator, I would hope that as you've listened to my responses and as you think them over that you will find on further reflection, because of my willingness to answer any other question that you or any other senator may have, that I do meet the high standards that you set, because I share those standards of the office. I think when I talked with you in your office I mentioned to you that I thought that this was the most important office next to that of the president. I feel that way.

I feel that for over 25 years every act that I have done, every conscious effort that I have made, has been to uphold the highest standard of any position in the public or in private life. If I had the chance to do over some of the things that we've talked about, I would do them over. I think I've indicated that on several occasions today. I indicated that yesterday. But you can't relive history, and the decisions that were made at the time were made based upon the most honorable intentions and acceptance of the highest standards that I knew at the time.

I have also indicated to you and to other senators -- Sen. DeConcini -- that I would take extraordinary steps in terms of my financial affairs. I also feel, in terms of the Army promotion, that if there were shown to me a way in which I could properly demonstrate to the public my concern proportional to the Army technicalities that were involved -- which had nothing to do with either my earning the commission, which I did, or the fact that I served honorably on active reserve status, even after being returned in ways which were the Army's breach of regulations to the extent that they were not mine, things which were described by the independent counsel in his report as technical irregularitiesat best, not something that was of such a major cause as to, for example, make it apparent to me then or now that I was not worthy or had not earned the commission or the rank which the Army awarded to me.

But I want to tell you, senator, that I hold the office of attorney general in the highest esteem. The president honored me by being the one who selected me for this position. The president revealed his confidence in me -- not once, but on numerous occasions during the past year and again when he renominated me in this session of the Congress. Now if you really have that respect for the president, I hope, as you think about this, you'll think about his judgment. He also has the highest standards for attorney general, and he feels that I'm qualified for it.

If there were any doubt in my mind that four years from now you could look back and say Ed Meese has fulfilled the standards that I've set for this office, then I would retire right now and withdraw. But I'm confident that I can meet your standards or anybody's standards for that office. And I can also tell you that if this Senate confirms me, that every ounce of my energy and every moment of my time will be devoted to fulfilling those standards so that you, and the others who might vote to confirm me, can be proud of that act, of allowing me to serve the president in the way that he has chosen that I should.

Biden:Mr. Meese . . . I acknowledge you can't relive history. But why is it so difficult for you to go back and say, "In order to set the right standard for all those people that are aspiring in the practice of law" -- which is laden with unethical people. That we both know. Why is so difficult for you to go back and say, "In hindsight, it was wrong for me to do such-and-such"? Or, "I wish I had done it" -- and just outline it. I mean, why?

Why do you stick to the technicalities of saying, for example, in the meeting where McKean's name came up, "It was not a formal meeting"? Who the hell -- heck -- cares whether it's a formal meeting? It's irrelevant whether it was a formal meeting. You are a man who's gonna be attorney general of the United States. Now, looking back on it, couldn't you say, "You know, knowing what I know now and having thought about this thing, I should have said, 'You know, I've got a financial arrangement through this fellow's firm' I talking about whether or not it was McKean, or McKean was a trustee of, or McKean was a trustee for -- I mean, why, why's it so hard to say that?

Meese:Senator, it's not, and I think I've revealed that today and yesterday. If I haven't answered that, I don't know what I have said to you here.

Biden:Okay, well, thank you.