TWELVE months is a long time for a Cabinet appointee to twist in the air. Something beyond mere partisan or ideological wrangling must have held up approval of Edwin Meese III by the Senate Judiciary Committee for that long. The designation of James Baker III, the fellow White House troika alumnus, as secretary of the Treasury took but one day to pass muster in the Senate Finance Committee before being promptly ushered down to the Senate floor for quick approval. The lesson in the Meese ordeal is that Cabinet appointments should be made in the first instance principally on the basis of professional competence and probity, not on the basis of personal loyalty to the president, reward for longtime service, or the desire to reassure a political constituency that its support will not be forgotten. This is especially true of the post of attorney general, whose officeholder might have to confront the chief executive with unwelcome, impartial counsel.
The Meese appointment bore too heavy a personal weight. No acclamation of his impersonal competence by legal professionals came to his rescue. The conventional notion that a president should be able to appoint the people he wants played too strongly in the initial Meese decision. Once launched, the appointment ensured a personal ordeal for Mr. Meese and his family, an embarrassing loose end for President Reagan through the last election, and the prospect that Meese would have a harder time winning the confidence of the American people by his performance on the job, given the long public attack on his fitness.
That public confidence is important. The designers of the process would not have required Senate approval if a president's imprimatur on an appointment were enough.
The remarkable hiatus stemmed largely from reservations about Mr. Meese's ethical fitness for the job. It has all been gone over so many times that perhaps his supporters hoped that familiarity with the charges would make them seem less offensive. These include instances of financial assistance to Meese or his wife by individuals who later won government posts with his help, a preferential advance in Meese's Army Reserve status, and a record of testimony that showed a disconcerting imprecision in his recall of events and in the orderliness of his private affairs. A court-appointed independent counsel, Jacob A. Stein, found that Meese had committed no criminal actions. In recent days, an Office of Government Ethics staff report was made public. The report, rejected by the office's director, accused Meese of violating federal ethical standards.
In his defense, Mr. Meese ascribes his problems to disorder and haste in the early days of the Reagan administration, not to self-seeking, and he promises greater sensitivity to the appearances of conflict of interest in the future.
Another line of reservations about Meese derives from his views and actions on civil rights, on legal services for the poor, and other matters that could come into his domain for action as attorney general. Unfortunately, inquiry into these issues had to struggle for equal footing with the ethics question.
The sense in Washington for weeks now has been that Meese would eventually weather the assault on his nomination. But more-exacting attention to ethical principles in the White House four years ago would perhaps have eliminated the apparent conflicts of interest. And a more impersonal search for someone to fill the nation's top law enforcement office could also have given the Senate approval process a more affirmative ring than has been heard in the Meese case the past dozen months.