The epiphany of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) in the matter of Edwin Meese III occurred "just after lunch." After much agony, a little anguish, arguments with his staff and counseling from the lobbyists of Common Cause, it occurred to him that Meese was honest enough to be attorney general and ethical enough to be attorney general -- but just barely. In an office that demanded a legal and ethical giant, Ed Meese managed only the minimal height requirement.
Not true, Meese responded. He had ethics and judgment in abundance -- and, in the strange logic of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the lack of wealth to prove it. But then, as if remembering who he was, he put Biden and his lunch-hour revelation in his place: Who was he to question the president of the United States?
"The president honored me by being the one who selected me for this position," he said. "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 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."
You may, if you like, refer to the Constitution, where it says that the Senate shall advise and consent in certain presidential appointments, but that is a phrase for movies titles and the musings of Archibald Cox. The truth -- the bitter truth -- is that Meese said all that needs to be said. The president wants him. In Washington, that is almost always enough, a secular version of the response the clergy often provides to the skeptical: Who are they to question God? The truth of course is that it's no answer at all, just a rebuff.
In the case of Meese, the questions are tough, but petty. They are about small matters -- the appointment of faceless men to faceless boards; a promotion in the joke of an Army Reserve; a loan in the nick of time. This is not Watergate, not Teapot Dome. The scandals are exceedingly small, but instructive. They suit the man.
This, of course, was Biden's point. Pressured to prove his bona-fides as a presidential aspirant, the obvious occurred to Biden: Neither ethically nor legally is there anything grand about Meese. He is a mediocrity who's always just this side of the ethical divide, working the line with the aid of a selective memory and fancy footwork. He's nimble enough to get out of the way of meetings where his benefactors are discussed for presidential appointments. He knows when to speak up and when not to.
Maybe Biden expected otherwise, but what did he think Ronald Reagan would serve up? After all, Meese is to replace William French Smith, a rich but otherwise undistinguished corporate lawyer whose term will be best remembered for miles traveled abroad. He comes to an office that has boasted attorneys general who diminish the term hack -- men like Richard Kleindienst, John Mitchell and Harry Daugherty. As for Meese, he's the one who called the ACLU the "criminal's lobby," showing not that he disagreed with his fellow lawyers, but that he had utter contempt for them. Meese exhibited the subtlety of his mind. The accused are criminals, and those who represent them are not lawyers doing what they're entitled, but cute lobbyists sneaking the guilty past the bar of justice.
Ed Meese is what he appears to be, and barring the discovery of a crime or a cosmic ethical lapse, he will be confirmed. Joe Biden was looking for greatness, grandness -- a big man for a big job. Instead, he'll get the man the president wants.