Listening to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) extol the many merits of Edwin Meese III is akin to hearing Brutus praise the endless virtues of Caesar, until he pronounces the one flaw that means he has to slay him.
Brutus, in his public litany of Caesar's admirable traits, weeps for the quality and capacity of great Caesar's love, rejoices in his fortune, honors his valor and gives death for his ambition. In his extraordinary soliloquy at the advise-and-consent hearings to determine Meese's fitness to be attorney general -- a Roman gladiatorial setting of mortal combat that lays bare the real Washington of power and posturing -- Biden enumerates something of the same kind of wonderful personal qualities Meese possesses -- until he names the flaw that causes him to level a deadly thrust.
For Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, it's a question of standards that troubles him.
Not legal standards, nor even ethical ones, to hear the senator put it.
No, not these. The senator is satisfied, he said, that Meese, like Brutus, is an honorable man.
He holds no doubts about Meese's inner motivations and personal standards of integrity. No, not these either.
"I don't think you consciously sat down and ever did anything wrong," Biden told Meese at the Senate hearings, "and I don't think you would for a minute."
What's more, in Biden's mind Meese possesses many other admirable traits.
"I concluded that you are a personable and likable man," he said. "I've concluded you've done no criminal wrong, and I don't believe you're unethical."
So what bugs the senator and causes him to level so vicious an attack?
While finding Meese honorable, ethical, personable and decent, Biden said he thinks "the office requires not just an honest and ethical man, which I believe you are." He added: "It should be occupied by a person of extraordinary stature and character."
No one can quarrel with that stipulation. It is in the best tradition of what ought to be the applicable standard for high public service. And Biden gave expression to a memorable phrase that ran as a refrain throughout his long lecture in the guise of remarks:
". . . I think that's beneath the office."
Up to this point, and despite his oratorical shadow boxing and unctuous tone -- alas, poor Ed, you're so terrific and I respect you so and if only you knew how much it hurts me to say what I have to say -- Biden was impressive, even stirring in a way we haven't heard in this capital for far too long.
Then he came to his penultimate standard, his Holy Grail of the test that should be applied in this confirmation case. It had to do with the majesty and the appearance of the law, a worthy subject to be sure.
In Biden's view, the attorney general of the United States is supposed "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.' "
Well, as high-sounding moral rhetoric, that's wonderful, too, but in this case it sounds like rank hypocrisy, given the reality of the lesson America's young lawyers can take from the confirmation process of Meese.
The lesson for young lawyers involves how to profit from public service cases and, in so doing, rip off the public for an outrageously big fee.
Even as Biden was delivering his sermon about the ethical beacon, sitting before him in the person of Ed Meese was Exhibit A in how the legal system works in such cases. And it has nothing to do with the potential attorney general's standards or lack of them.
Meese, like other public officials in recent years, has been forced to defend himself on the rigorous ethical standards mandated in the era of "post-Watergate morality." His lawyers have presented him a bill for more than $700,000. And who's going to pay it, if the system works as apparently it will?
You, me and all the other dumb taxpayers, that's who.
And get this, young lawyers, you can't lose in such high public service cases. Even if the public doesn't pick up the bill you submit to the official, he'll have to scratch for it himself, and, naturally, unless he's of Rockefeller wealth stature, he'll be forced to raise it by the old ways, through tapping private sources to whom he will be indebted in more ways than one.
Either way, young lawyers, you make out big.
Moral: You don't have to fly off to Bhopal to make big bucks. There's high profit to be made closer to home, and it comes cloaked with the noble vestments of performing higher public service, too.
There's a beacon and a citadel to aspire to, young lawyers.
What about that standard, senator? I wonder if you think that's beneath the office, too, or if it makes a mockery of the profession of law that the great office of attorney general of the United States represents?