Washington — Edwin Meese III is on the threshold of reaching the job he wants most - United States attorney general. First, however, President Reagan's counselor must jump through the hoop of Senate confirmation. The Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on his nomination Thursday. It did so with the expected partisan questioning of a controversial figure.
To his critics, President Reagan's attorney general-designate is an ultraconservative law-and-order man who is insensitive to civil liberties and to the needs of the poor. To his defenders - and they are not all right-wing conservatives - he is an able, articulate public servant who, although he believes in tough law enforcement, is decent and fair.
Whatever their views, detractors and defenders agree that if Mr. Meese is confirmed as the nation's chief law enforcer, he will vigorously pursue the President's agenda in such areas as the fight on crime and narcotics, immigration-law reform, and social issues.
As the hearings got under way in the high-ceilinged committee room, the mood seemed lacking in political excitement, suggesting that Meese will encounter no serious obstacles to his confirmation. But Democratic senators planned to interrogate him on such subjects as civil rights, charges of political cronyism, and personal finances.
During his years at the White House, Meese has stirred criticism from civil libertarians and political liberals and moderates on a number of counts:
* He was instrumental in getting the President to revamp the US Civil Rights Commission to be more compatible with the Reagan philosophy.
* He spearheaded the drive against the Legal Services Corporation, which provides free legal aid to the poor.
* He supported the move to try to lift the ban on tax-exempt status for schools that practice racial discrimination.
* He is against ''judicial activism,'' i.e., judges intruding into social issues such as mandatory school busing and affirmative action.
* He favors relaxing the ''exclusionary rule,'' which prohibits the introduction of improperly obtained evidence in court.
Meese has also gotten into political hot water because of comments that seem to convey callousness toward the poor. Last December he sparked an outcry when he commented that he had never seen ''any authoritative figures that there are hungry children'' in the United States and that some people go to soup kitchens ''because the food is free.''
Some observers believe that such remarks stem from the fact that Meese is not knowledgeable about social and economic problems. His expertise is the law, and in this domain he is self-confident and well versed.
After receiving a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1958, he worked for eight years as deputy district attorney in Alameda County.
It was in this job that Meese earned the reputation of a law enforcer with a ''cop's outlook,'' because he and other prosecutors often rode around with police officers, and because police testimony was seldom challenged.
As a recent column in the Los Angeles Times notes, however, it was a time when the Oakland Police Department was being cleaned up and a new breed of better-educated, more-dedicated officers was moving into the system. Meese himself worked for a prosecutor who set a standard of toughness.
At the time, too, many of the judges in the county were former assistant district attorneys (appointed by former Gov. Earl Warren) who also had a stern approach toward criminals. Press and public supported the trend.
''Thus, Meese's attitudes were formed in a time when only a very few in the community - those considered dangerously radical - questioned the assumptions under which the criminal justice system operated,'' writes columnist Bill Boyarsky.
Later Meese served as the district attorney's lobbyist in Sacramento, where he came to the attention of Ronald Reagan. He joined Governor Reagan's cabinet in 1967 as legal secretary on clemency and extradition, and ultimately became the governor's chief of staff. After Reagan left office, Meese practiced law and then became director of the Center of Criminal Justice and Management and was later a law professor at the University of California-San Diego Law School.
During the student turmoil of the 1960s, Meese reinforced his image as a hard-line enforcer of the law. He had strong negative views about antiwar protesters and other political activists and helped move against them vigorously when they violated the law.
Despite his reputation, those who know him say that Meese is a fair and kind man. He talks a hard line but can also be pragmatic. A California observer notes that one of the policies under Governor Reagan was to try to reduce the state's prison population by releasing inmates to communities.
Attention is also called to the role Meese played in the case of Oakland Mayor John Charles Houlihan, who in 1966 was convicted for embezzlement. Meese was deputy district attorney at that time and was Governor Reagan's clemency secretary in 1969, when Mr. Houlihan applied for a pardon. The pardon was granted, and, in a statement suggested by Meese, Reagan lauded Houlihan's rehabilitation.
''He (Meese) is an extremely compassionate man,'' Houlihan said in a telephone interview this week. ''When the pardon was signed, he held it and then sent it to me on my birthday as a surprise. He congratulated me privately and publicly.''
A former California associate says Meese is not a hidebound ideologue. ''He make a genuine effort to provide a balance,'' he says. ''He's not a man without compassion, but he has a strong set of values and works for that. But he's aware of the fragility of political life, and he's not the kind of ideologue who is upset by opposing views.''
Knowledgeable California observers also suggest that Meese does not share the extreme view of the far right that government is all evil. ''Ed's father was a civil servant,'' comments one observer who knows the President's counselor. ''His family was deeply seeped in government service, so he will not destroy it, but work with it.''
In an opening statement, Meese told the committee he would maintain the independence of the Justice Department.
''I will do everything in my power to uphold and advance the cause of justice in this land,'' he said.
Democratic senators raised reservations about Meese's qualifications to be attorney general and to be a ''people's lawyer'' and not a lawyer to the President.
Addressing the committee's concern that his loyalty to Reagan might influence him as attorney general, Meese said: ''At no time during my service as a member of the Reagan campaign committee did I ever incur any personal, political, or other obligations that would in any way interfere with my being able to carry out the duties of attorney general . . . in an impartial, independent manner.''