Washington — The fighting is out in the open in front of the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where the black asphalt is melting back to tar in the searing summer heat. Rival Iranian factions are brawling with loudspeakers and fists and the long wooden staves of posters written in Arabic. Women in dark brown chuddars watch as the police move in, swinging billy clubs. The demonstration is blocked off from the White House by a line of 19 police cars and paddy wagons, parked like a metal wall down the length of the street.
The fighting is not out in the open behind the White House walls for Edwin R. Meese III, the man who has been described as the deputy president. On the day of this interview he is under a siege of shadows. The shadows are those of ''the long knives,'' the phrase veteran Washington White House watchers use to describe the quick, sharp, sometimes politically lethal attacks made from time to time on those in power. This time, the long knives were out for Mr. Meese. Within the space of a few weeks, he had found himself the focus of several media stories, based on leaks from anonymous White House sources, suggesting that he had toppled from his position as one of the President's three top advisers. For some time, power at the White House under President Reagan has been held by a troika consisting of James Baker, chief of staff, Michael Deaver, deputy chief, and Meese, presidential policy chief. As counselor to the President, Meese holds Cabinet rank.
Suddenly this summer, Time magazine ran a story headed ''Eclipse of a Deputy, '' subheaded ''Meese slips from the center of power.'' The same week, Newsweek led its ''Periscope'' section with a story calling Meese ''an insider on the outs'' and suggesting that the White House troika existed ''in name only.''
Even the Washington Post's ''Ear'' columnist noted that ''Negative gossips keep mooning about Ed Meese being on the outs.'' A few weeks before, columnist Dom Bonafede in The Washingtonian magazine had led off with a blast: ''Edwin Meese III, counselor to President Reagan, has become the Hamilton Jordan of today's White House: Nobody knows what he does except stay on the good side of the President.''
The timing of the stories was such that it appeared a media siege against Meese had been launched from somewhere within the air-conditioned corridors of power. For Meese, it is another one of the unforeseen and harrowing incidents that have been the darker side of his and his family's life at the top in Washington.
The staunchness that has characterized Meese through his 15-year commitment to Ronald Reagan - from the time he was Governor Reagan's chief of staff in California, through the presidential campaign, and since - has been severely tested.
To begin with, there are the large debts he has incurred because of the pay cut he took to work at the White House. (His annual salary of $61,000 is less than half of what he made as a corporate attorney and law professor). His job includes the burden of an expensive, obligatory social life, plus the added cost of two homes, because the family's San Diego house remains unsold. Then there was the burglary at their McLean, Va., house and the death threats. This resulted in Secret Service protection, which keeps the family safe but erodes their privacy.
But most devastating of all has been the family tragedy this summer: the death of the Meeses' 19-year-old son, Scott, in an auto accident, as he was driving home from his job as a summer intern with Senate Republicans. (In addition to Scott, who was a sophomore at Princeton, the family includes another son, Michael, a West Point graduate, and a daughter, Dana, who lives at home and attends a private girls' school).
Two men at the White House who know Ed Meese well speak of the strength with which he's handled this personal crisis on top of the awesome demands of his job.
Former White House personnel director Pendleton James describes Meese as decent, honorable, and intelligent. He says he and his family have been close friends of the Meeses and that during the recent tragedy ''we gained strength from the strength of Ed and Ursula. They gave off strength. Their (Lutheran) faith is so strong. . . .'' White House communications chief David Gergen says the Meese family has inspired a stronger bond in the White House ''family.''
Mr. James mentions the other problems: ''the terrorist threat, the break-in, the enormous financial burdens'' that the Meeses endured without flinching ''because you have to recognize that Ed and Ursula have a deep, ingrained sense of public duty. . . . Both of their careers have always been directed toward public service, as opposed to lucrative, private (jobs) accumulating money. They could be wealthy if they'd directed their talents and drives toward personal aggrandizement and gain, but they chose the other'' - except, as James notes, for Ed Meese's brief stint as vice-president for Rohr Industries Inc., a California company.
Ursula Meese worked as a probation officer for 10 years in Oakland, Calif., while her husband served as deputy district attorney of Alameda County. Before joining the Reagan presidential campaign as chief of staff, Meese was a practicing lawyer, as well as a law professor and director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the University of San Diego. A Yale graduate, he holds a law degree from the University of California's Berkeley campus.
When Ed Meese sits down to talk about his present job and the slings and arrows that beset it, he is terse. Of the Washingtonian magazine column that suggested ''no one knows what he does . . . he's stranded without a significant or special authority,'' Meese says:
''Well that couldn't have come from anyone inside the White House, because everybody here knows what I do. Let me be specific about what my responsibilities are: One, I have the overall responsibility for policy and policy development. Two, I have the responsibility for the administration of the cabinet and the administration of the cabinet system. I have the responsibility for overseeing policy and policy development, administration of the cabinet process, and I am the person primarily responsible for overseeing liaison between the White House and the various departments and agencies of the executive branch.'' He closes the subject abruptly, like a heavy law book slammed shut.
A few minutes later he is asked to comment more fully on the stories suggesting that he is no longer deputy president, no longer one of the President's three most powerful men. He begins again briskly: ''First of all, the stories were all untrue. Both the conclusions and, in many cases, the actual statements were actually false. Why they came at one time or how they arose or why they arose, I have no idea. . . .
''I think that the stories which exaggerated my role here a year ago and the stories that have tried to diminish my role here which appeared recently are equally untrue. I don't know how these things get started.''
Meese is a hale-looking man with a ruddy face, ready smile, and the cool blue eyes of a cop. Direct, yet affable. At a breakfast meeting with the press featuring soft scrambled eggs and tough questions, Meese doesn't give an inch. He doesn't enjoy the parry and thrust for information, doesn't offer insights, color, or observations beyond the official line. He is like a traffic cop, hand up, ready to stop a line of tractor-trailers bearing down on him.
Speculating on how the stories about him got rolling, he says: ''I do know that people in the news media kind of feed off each other, both in gossip and sometimes in stories. So that may be a partial explanation. I also think that a lot of people like to engage in political gossip, or like to appear in the know, so many times they say things they don't really know to be true. . . . I think the interesting thing - and the thing that most surprises me - is that any reporter would put credence in anonymous gossip.''
As he says this, his face reddens, his eyes snap, and there is a glimpse of indignation behind his usually unflappable facade. Mr. Gergen suggests that no high-level White House staffers were involved in the Meese siege, only middle-level types who don't understand the job, gossiping about the ups and downs of people in the administration. Of Meese, he says: ''his job is just what it's been all along. He's a tremendously influential and highly valued adviser to the President who advises on issues across the board. . . . He's one of the men who has known (the President) so long and so well he's become almost an alter ego of Ronald Reagan, so that he's able to judge from his experience what are the President's feelings on a subject. And that's an invaluable commodity to bring to the White House.''
When Meese is asked what he thinks Ronald Reagan relies on him for, he answers: ''I think he is confident that I am loyal to him, that I share his basic values and objectives, that I will give him honest and objective advice and will give him as complete information as is possible so he can make the right decisions. I think he also - are you going to put this in the first person or third? - I think he also feels I'm fair and constructive in dealing with other members of the team.''
He is a tallish man with sandy hair and a pleasant but brisk attitude. A large boat model floats in one corner of his roomy, pale-blue corner office. Mr. Meese runs a taut ship. When the initial request was made for this interview, for the minimum 45 minutes to an hour required for profiles, an aide said that would not be possible. Twenty minutes was the limit. No exceptions. ''We don't even give the President more than 20 minutes.''
But at the end of the interview, with David Stockman brooding outside his door with the budget, Meese agreed to a second 20 minutes the following week. In both interviews he wore his favorite Adam Smith tie, maroon silk with tiny gold Smith heads. ''Adam Smith was a conservative economist,'' Meese felt he should explain. Among his heroes are another conservative economist, Milton Friedman, and President Dwight David Eisenhower.
When he began his job, the word was that Meese's specialty was organization, that studying management charts was a hobby of his. But one of the criticisms leveled at him in the past several months has been that he had an inefficient management style and that he's been away traveling too much on speaking engagements.
In fact, he was away on such a trip when the bomb burst over Secretary of State Alexander Haig's ''resignation.'' Meese was not privy to White House councils over the decision, and didn't learn about it till after it had been announced publicly. Some observers believe that it is the rise in power of National Security Council chief William Clark, who was in on the decision, which has cast a shadow on Meese's role. At the time of Mr. Haig's abrupt departure, one of the official White House reasons given for his difficulties was that he was not ''a team player.'' Meese prides himself on being a good team player, and says that ''the college football-coach approach'' of taking the players you have and doing the best you can is his method.
How important is it to be a team player for ''the Gipper'' - to win one for Ronald Reagan? Meese hesitates, then says: ''I think I would really question whether there's a place for the non-team player. Certainly a non-team player is a detriment to the overall accomplishment of what we want to do. And also a non-team player often has a corrosive effect on the whole system, because as one person tries to advance his own political or personal fortunes at the expense of others, then often this can become infectious among others.'' Is that what happened with ex-Secretary Haig? ''No, I don't think so. The President has indicated that we've said enough about that. So I wouldn't comment on that,'' says the good team player.
The hecklers on the sidelines have suggested that Meese has fumbled the ball a few times: his handling of the Richard Allen affair, his advising the President to back tax-exempt status for private, segregated schools (a move which was scuttled after loud public protest). He drew perhaps the sharpest criticism for stories that he'd let the President sleep for hours, not informing him, while US jets shot down two attacking Libyan warplanes over the Gulf of Sidra. When asked what he regrets most and what he is most proud of in his tenure so far, Meese admits some remorse over the Libyan incident:
''Well, I think from a substantive standpoint there was no reason to change that. The regret is that a lot of that was misinterpreted as to what happened. Actually, we woke the President at 4 o'clock in the morning, shortly after 4, when we had all the information available for him. It was not a matter of letting him, deliberately letting him, sleep through something. It was a matter of making sure we had all the information before we awakened him.''
What he's most proud of is ''the development of the cabinet system. (Reagan) is the first President in modern times who has effectively used the cabinet system, and acting under the President's direction, I have the principal responsibility for developing that system and making it work.''
Meese was born in Oakland, Calif., ''That's O-a-k-l-a-n-d,'' he says, spelling it out carefully. It was Gertrude Stein who said of Oakland, ''there's no there there,'' but Meese remembers it differently: ''Oakland, when I was growing up, was a very nice city to live in, a relatively small city across the bay from a very large city, San Francisco - so you had the advantages of both. There was a lot of civic spirit, a lot of people who knew each other and worked together on civic activities, as I did as a young person, young lawyer, there.''
He followed in the tradition of his father; he's proud that his father completed 50 years of public service as court clerk, then treasurer and tax collector of Alameda County.Meese says he had a ''pretty normal'' childhood, delivering the Oakland Tribune on his paper route, later working in a drug store , then as a day laborer in an iron works after high school graduation. When the National Student Body came to California on a recruiting drive, he was selected for a scholarship to Yale. He became president of the political union there, president of the debating association, a member of the track team. Yale turned him into a conservative.
When he first went to Yale, he joined the political union. ''I thought I wanted to be in the liberal party. Then I heard the four parties announce their principles: labor, liberal, Bull Moose, and conservative. The only party whose principles I felt really comfortable with was the conservative party. That's how I learned I was a conservative. From a philosophical standpoint, the conservative's belief in the worth of the individual, in liberty and freedom and the free-market system, are the principal values that would mark me as a conservative.''
It was not in college, but as a deputy D.A., that Meese began developing his interest in police and intelligence work. One of his hobbies is listening in to the police radio channels with his scanner, another is collecting miniature police cars from foreign countries. Among his favorite writers is John Creasey, author of over 400 English mysteries. He also enjoys World War II history books, classical overtures (particularly by Beethoven) and the music of Johnny Cash, woodworking, swimming and tennis with the family. He does not, like many administration officials, keep the de rigueur jar of jelly beans on display. Frankly, he doesn't like them.Meese is generally described as fair and friendly, two neutral words that stir up no dust. In a city where much of the infighting and struggle for political power is done with the judiciously placed leak, the sharp innuendo, the enhanced-radiation whisper, Ed Meese may have been penalized by the rules of the game.
E. Robert Wallach, an active Democrat and lawyer who is also a long-time friend of Meese's says he ''is not the kind of person who defends himself well in the media because he doesn't treat the media as an equal partner in the administration of government. His view of his relationship to the President is like that of a good lawyer's relationship to his client. . . . He respects the client's right to privacy.'' Mr. Wallach adds: ''Unlike others in the White House, Ed doesn't seek out the media to explain what he's doing or why he's doing it, or what the President is doing or why he's doing it. . . . This kind of integrity on his part has built an enormous bond of loyalty between the President and Ed.''
When Meese is asked to comment on Jimmy Breslin's remark that power in Washington is mostly a matter of blue smoke and mirrors, he says drily: ''Well, I think most people in Washington feel image is important. Most of us who come from a different background put less of a value on image and are more interested in substance and reality.''