As far as anyone knows, Edwin Meese III is not suffering from premature senility. Nor is there evidence that he inherited tendencies toward early deterioration of mental capacity.
By all accounts, Meese's father was a man of crisp mind and sharp memory until advanced age. At 84, for instance, Edwin Meese Jr. vividly recalled details of the San Francisco earthquake that he had witnessed as a 10-year-old. "I will never forget the earthquake of '06," he said when interviewed after his son became President Reagan's counselor in 1981.
Neither is there anything in Meese's record as an undergraduate at Yale University, law school student, attorney in private practice, public prosecutor and legal counselor to then-governor Reagan that raises doubts about his ability or memory. On the contrary, his reputation is that of a man with a fondness for the intricacies of police work and with clear recall of cases in which he was involved.
Until he came to Washington, that is. Something has happened since.
Thanks to the wonders of the computer age, a search this week of Washington Post files since 1981 produced 30 pages of printouts containing fragments from 47 articles in which Meese's failure to remember critical questions figured prominently. It did not include the recent reports that prompted the search.
One involves his role in a proposed Iraqi pipeline plan, allegations of bribery surrounding it and possible incriminating language in a memo about it that he received two years ago from a close friend and adviser, E. Bob Wallach. On Monday, Meese told reporters, "I do not recall having read the specific words that have now mushroomed into controversy . . . . "
The next day, testifying at a conflict-of-interest trial here, his memory again failed. He did not have "a specific recollection" of various talks and meetings that led to indictment in the Wedtech affair of his longtime friend and former White House associate, Lyn Nofziger.
This fits a familiar pattern and refocuses attention on what might be called, in pulp mystery style, "The Curious Case of the Missing Memory of Ed Meese."
The computer record shows that Meese:Did not remember briefing the president about an important and controversial tax-exemption question early in the administration. Did not remember reported discussions with the FBI's director about possible organized-crime links concerning former labor secretary Raymond J. Donovan.
Did not remember receiving several internal memos from Reagan campaign aides bearing on how they acquired copies of President Jimmy Carter's debate briefing book.
Did not remember his wife, Ursula, receiving from a friend a $15,000 interest-free loan with which the Meeses purchased stock offered by a New York investment company, and hence did not include it as required on his financial-disclosure form.
Did not remember receiving an official memorandum questioning the propriety of his accepting an Army Reserve promotion after he had retired from active reserve status long before coming to Washington.
Did not remember receiving a letter from a California accountant who had arranged $60,000 in unsecured loans for him and was seeking a longer political-appointment term on the Postal Board of Governors.
In fact, Senate confirmation hearings when Meese was nominated as attorney general became a study in his forgetfulness. One Senate aide counted 79 times when Meese said he couldn't remember or didn't recall specifics on a wide range of issues -- all in two days.
His memory lapses have continued throughout his tenure as the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
Testifying to the Iran-contra investigating committees last summer, Meese again demonstrated a singular inability to remember key details about his actions that other witnesses readily recalled. Even before that, he had established a record for forgetfulness among the remarkably forgetful cast of Iran-contra characters.
As one committee member later characterized Meese's lengthy private depositions, "he responded that he did not know, could not remember, did not recall, had no recollection or some similar formulation some 340 times."
There's much more, all leading to Meese's latest memory lapses, but space mercifully prevents detailing them here.
Has the cumulative strain of wicked Washington robbed this bright man of his memory, causing him to forget so many crucial details? Only one thing is certain, mystery fans: Don't ask Ed Meese because he won't remember.