The Meese case

I think I can understand how Edwin Meese III believes himself to be innocent of wrongdoing in connection with the employment in the United States government of people who had previously helped him out of financial difficulties.

Mr. Meese and those who helped him, and then took government jobs, belong to a social grouping in California which revolved around President Reagan while Mr. Reagan was governor of California. They were social friends and political associates. They tended to think along Reagan political lines.

It is natural that the President would have drawn from this circle of former friends and political associates when staffing the new administration in Washington. And it was equally natural for people in this group to come to the financial aid of their friend Ed Meese when Mr. Meese found his government salary insufficient to cover the mortgage payments on his old house back in California and his new house in Washington.

That is to say, the people who lent money without interest to Mr. Meese would probably have done so had no one ever thought of asking them to come to Washington. And it is equally plausible to think that the same people would have been offered the same jobs had Mr. Meese never needed financial help or accepted such financial help from old friends.

In other words, there may well have been not the slightest connection in the mind of either Mr. Meese or his friends between lending or giving money to Mr. Meese and the jobs they were subsequently offered.

But acts that may be innocent in their motivation can still cross the line of the law. Innocence in motivation is no excuse for violation of the law.

In the Meese case there is no question about the facts. Mr. Meese received substantial financial help in selling his old house in California and in being able to meet the payments on his new house in Washington. Several of the people who helped him out of his difficulties took government jobs. Mr. Meese has been a central figure inside the White House from the day Mr. Reagan took over the office.

Mr. Meese asserts his innocence of wrongdoing. That assertion of innocence has to be based on the lack of a conscious connection between the help he received and the jobs the helpers received. One can believe an absence of such connection.

But the law is also specific. It forbids precisely this sort of thing. Where financial aid goes to a person in high office in government and is followed by job appointments for those who gave the aid, the appearances are unfavorable.

There is nothing in this stituation to prevent the President from employing Mr. Meese on his personal staff in order to take his advice on political matters. Detailed knowledge of the law and of its intent is not vital to the competence of the kind of political advice Mr. Meese gives to Mr. Reagan.

But being a counselor at the White House is a different thing from being attorney general of the United States. The office of attorney general is one of the vital positions in the Cabinet. The attorney general is the top law officer of the republic. He is the one charged with seeing to it that the laws are enforced and enforced equally and impartially. The public has a right to expect that the person appointed to this high office shall be sensitive to the intent of the law and aware that an innocent motive is no excuse for a violation of the law.

No matter how innocent Mr. Meese may be in intent, he has laid himself open to the appearance of wrongdoing. He has compounded the appearance by failing to remember the facts. His reports to the Congress on his personal affairs have had to be amended.

President Eisenhower was sure that his chief of staff Sherman Adams had innocent motives in accepting favors from a person wanting to do business with the government. But the appearances were against Mr. Adams. He left the White House. Is Mr. Meese's understanding of the intent of the law sufficient to justify his elevation to the top law office of the government?

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