Decline of Ed Meese? There's nothing to it, say White House insiders

Reports of the decline of presidential counselor Edwin Meese, so widespread of late, are quite exaggerated.

Despite some recent adjustment in his duties and criticism of his performance , Mr. Meese is still firmly in favor in the Reagan White House. This assessment rests on these observations:

* The well-known loyalty of the President to those who have long stood at his side. Mr. Reagan has liked Mr. Meese and respected his judgment for years, going back to the period when Reagan was governor of California.

* The President's feeling, according to White House insiders, that he owes Mr. Meese a great deal, including Meese's assistance during the 1980 campaign.

Mr. Reagan felt no such abiding loyalty to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. But he does to Attorney General William French Smith and CIA Director William J. Casey, both of whom have been subject to criticism for alleged improprieties.

According to White House insiders, the appearance of a fading Meese comes largely from a shift in the relationship of the Big Three - Chief of Staff James Baker, Deputy Chief Michael Deaver, and Meese - with the arrival of William Clark as national security adviser. In essence, it's now a Big Four.

One Presidential associate puts it this way: ''Influence among the Big Four is a rolling one. It moves first to one, then to another. The President trusts each of these men equally. That's the only relevant factor in assessing the importance of Meese or Baker or Clark or Deaver.''

Mr. Clark, like Meese is a longtime friend of the President's. Meese kept tabs on the National Security Council during the tenure of Clark's predecessor, Richard Allen. But now Clark reports directly to Reagan.

Clearly, there's less need for Meese to be dealing with the White House foreign-policymaking machinery. But stories that Meese has lost his say on foreign policy are simply not so.

''The real story about Meese's position today,'' says one top White House aide, ''is that it remains just as it was from the beginning: very high. And why? Because he is the counselor to the President. This means that the President seeks his counsel on all matters. And this means foreign as well as domestic policy.''

He continues: ''The President and Meese have this longtime, close relationship. The President trusts Meese. And he continues to turn to him. And as long as that goes on, Meese is on the top of the heap around here - along with Baker, Deaver, and Clark.''

In this same vein, Edwin L. Harper, assistant to the President for policy development, told reporters over breakfast on June 8: ''Ed Meese is involved in every major decision the President makes - in domestic or foreign policy.'' He added, ''He's definitely not on the skids.''

Mr. Meese himself has publicly denied allegations that he is being eased out of key policy decisions. He attributed such reports stories to ''anonymous political gossips.''

Obviously, the focus of presidential attention is controlled by events. But, less obviously, the importance of various members of the White House's top quartet is shaped by where this focus rests.

For some time the President has been wrapped up in foreign affairs - first the Falklands, then both the Falklands and the Mideast, and, now, the crisis in Lebanon.

This has meant that Clark has been playing a top role, simply because the President needed his services more than those of others close around him.

But Baker has held the spotlight, too, since his liaison-with-Congress duties kept him in center stage during the protracted battle over the budget.

Deaver, the trusted aide who has always been particularly close to Reagan, is much more than the keeper of the presidential schedule. A Deaver associate describes him as ''the one who sets the President's pace, helps direct his momentum.'' If there is a Presidential right-hand man, it is Deaver. And he has been that from the start.

Events over the past several months have certainly done nothing to elevate Meese. His have been the less-than-spectacular tasks of helping shape domestic policy initiatives and serving as the President's intermediary with the Cabinet.

So the public perception, at least, has been a less-involved, even less-important Edwin Meese. But, again, a number of presidential assistants emphasize that Meese still rides high because of his particularly good standing with the President.

However, there has been some criticism within the White House of Meese's performance of late: that he has been away too much on speaking engagements, that he hasn't proved out too well as an administrator.

But this sniping appears to be coming from low levels - not from others in the Big Four or from those who in a good position to assess the overall Meese performance and his present standing.

Says Mr. Harper of Mr. Meese as an administrator: ''The President turns to Meese on policy matters. As to keeping up on minutia and details - thats up to Meese's staffers.''

The Meese-on-the-decline stories seem to stem, at least in large part, from those in the media who had overplayed the Meese role during the period Mr. Reagan was incapacitated following the assassination attempt. They were the ones who invented the ''assistant president'' title for Meese.

There was no doubt that Meese was the aide selected by the President to jump into the void left by his incapacity during those several months.

But credible White House observers say Meese's actual importance was exaggerated at the time. And now, say these observers, the same media voices that overplayed Meese's importance then are trying to climb off this assessment by saying Mr. Meese is on the decline.

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