Meese on Reagan's steadiness, Haig, crime
Washington — The man insiders say is the closest adviser to the President, Edwin S. Meese III, says Ronald Reagan exercised sound judgment in the events of last week and showed he "doesn't react inappropriately to crisis -- whether it is personal or governmental."
Added Mr. Meese: "I think the fact that he has set out the principles of foreign policy -- which include candor, which include straight talking, and which include consistency -- will make it very unlikely that he will ever have to use military force and will enhance the probability of maintaining world peace."
In an interview in his White House office, Meese also said:
* Ways will be explored to see if the President can be better protected. But "when you have a president who wants to be close to the people, and when you have a people . . . who want to be in contact with their president, there always are going to be risks."
* When the President was under anesthesia, the "national command authority" was in the hands of the Vice-President, with whom the White House was in contact "on a continuing basis" as he flew back to Washington. Had there been a break in that contact, however, authority would have been transferred to the secretary of defense.
* Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. is a "team player" who is committed to carrying out the President's objectives.
* There would never be a "Watergate" under Reagan, since no one in his administration would attempt to cover up wrongdoing.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
Is there anything that can be done -- any legislation -- that could help prevent further assassination attacks on the President?
I don't think there is much that can be done by way of federal legislation. What we really need is a better overall approach to the crime problem.
We need to put the same kind of thinking that has gone on in other fields where we have made some progress into the whole crime problem.
For example, we are catching and arresting too few of the perpetrators of crimes. Of those we are able to arrest and prosecute, not all of them are convicted. And of those convicted not all of those are adequately punished.
In addition, the system has delays. It has technicalities and loopholes. And, as a result, we just don't do a very good job of preventing or correcting crime.
Can anything be done to protect a president more than we are doing now?
I don't know for sure. We'll know, at least in regard to this incident. The Secret Service will be reviewing the incident and we'll have some ideas presented by them, I'm sure, as to whether the precautions and the preventive techniques can be improved.
But I think the ultimate answer to your question is that when you have a president who wants to be close to the people, and when you have a people, as our people are, who want to be in contact with their president, there always are going to be risks.
Back to the subject of violence in the broad sense -- the fear that grips the people today as they stay behind locked doors -- is there any Reagan plan to help ease that situation?
Attorney General William French Smith has a task force on violent crime looking at the issue and it will make recommendations as to whether there should be, or can, be legislative or administrative steps to improve the crime-prevention and crime-control situation.
I'm not sure there can be a great deal more done at the federal level. The prevention and control of crime is essentially a state and local function.
But I think there are some things the federal government can do within its sphere of influence. Interstate criminal activity; organized crime; the use of interstate means such as transportation, communication, and use of mail service to commit crime; the importation of narcotics and contraband -- these are the kinds of things where the federal government can provide some assistance.
How about the return of federal funds to the states for crime-prevention purposes?
One of the things the federal government has done, interestingly enough, over the last 10-to-12 years has been to provide considerable funding for law-enforcement assistance.
Some of this funding has been very useful. Police departments have been able to improve their equipment. And this has had an impact on the control of crime.
Also, a lot of funds were wasted and not used effectively, which unfortunately is too often the pattern of federal funding projects.
What characteristics has the President shown during this assassination-attempt crisis?
He has shown that he doesn't react inappropriately to crisis -- whether it is personal or governmental.
Some critics contend this President might be quick to use arms -- even the bomb -- in foreign crises. What do you say to that charge?
First, you have to look at the record. Ronald Reagan has a record of being careful and reasoned in his actions. When he was governor of California during a very turbulent period in our history, he was particularly careful and reasoned in his use of police authority or state law-enforcement resources or military resources in any way.
He is a person who is self-confident, who does not use crisis as a means of enhancing either his personal or political power. And, further, I think the fact that he has set out the principles of foreign policy -- which include candor, which include straight talking, and which include consistency -- will make it very unlikely that he will ever have to use military force and will enhance the probably of maintaining world peace.
What role is the Vice-President playing, with the President in the hospital?
George Bush is performing those duties that the President has asked him to perform, which are mainly those things the President cannot do personally, which do require his representative to do them.
On the other hand, the Vice-President is not performing the duties of President, per se, since the President himself is making the decisions, doing those things that require his personal judgment in matters that relate to the use of presidential authority -- such as signing key documents, making decisions on foreign policy, and so on.
Were there moments last week when the President was not able to make decisions?
I think there probably was a short time of that nature when the President was under the anesthetic.
During that period of time the properly authorized people in government were prepared to act and respond to any emergency that might occur.
The Vice-President had the national command authority to act in the event of a need to defend the country against hostile action.
We also had a backup in the secretary of defense in case anything should happen where we would not be able to be in contact with the Vice-President as he was flying back to Washington.
Was the command authority at any time in the hands of the secretary of defense?
No. We still had contact with the Vice-President during that time, while he was in the air, on a continuing basis. But if, through technological failure or otherwise, that contact has been lost, we had a backup resource here with the secretary of defense.
And in all the other areas: the law-enforcement area, the attorney general; the secretary of state in dealing with foreign countries. So there was really nothing that was left without someone definitely in charge with proper authority to carry out his duties.
What was your role during this period?
I helped to coordinate the entire operation, particularly in the area of continuity of government. I helped see to it that the various governmental functions were prepared for any contingency that might occur.
I was one of the links between our command post and the hospital and between our command post and the Cabinet.
What role did chief of staff Jim Baker play in all this?
Jim Baker was working primarily in the press area, although he and I were almost interchangeable during this period.
But in general I worked more on the continuity of government and he worked more on the press and the matters pertaining specifically to the President. And [deputy chief of staff] Mike Deaver handled matters pertaining to the Reagan family and Mrs. Reagan.
To change the subject, is Cabinet government really working? You said you could make it work despite those critics who say it hasn't worked in the past and never will.
I would say that the use of Cabinet government has been done very effectively.
The Cabinet members like it. They have fully realized the authority and responsibility that goes with their offices. The President does hold them accountable for what happens in their departments.
The Cabinet meetings have been worthwhile. Cabinet members who have served in prior administrations have indicated they have been the most successful and substantive Cabinet meetings they have ever attended.
General Haig's loss to the Vice-President in competing for the crisis-management leadership is being cited as an example of Cabinet government also losing out. One hears the assertion that the secretary of state had to defer to White House influence that persuaded the President to choose Mr. Bush. Is that true?
It's not true in the sense that it goes against Cabinet government. Obviously, when you have more than one department involved, there has to be someone to coordinate that inter-departmental activity.
I don't think anyone ever assumed that any individual department would be responsible for crisis management. In the past, it has normally been handled by a staff member in the White House.
I think the significant element of this particular issue is that there is a change because of Cabinet government. That is, you do not now have a White House staff member serving as chairman over a group of Cabinet members. But, rather, the President has picked someone to serve as chairman of that particular function who has seniority -- in effect -- to the Cabinet members rather than having a subordinate status.
And that is why in this case the President selected his second in command in the executive branch.
The President, in making his appointments, said he wanted 'team players.' Is Haig a team player?
I think that Al is a very valuable and very effective member of the Cabinet. I think he serves as a team player. And he is committed to carrying out the President's objectives. Those were the qualifications the President set up.
What has the President done to ensure that members of his administration live up to the highest standard of ethics?
There now is the government code of ethics, which has very extensive application. Then there are the kinds of people he has selected. One of the main criteria he has looked at in selecting people is to find people of upright, moral, and ethical character.
In addition, we have a very careful review system if there should be any question about the propriety of anyone's actions -- if there are any complaints about any individual.
Is there a White House committee charged with looking into complaints relating to ethical conduct in this administration?
If there any complaints about the conduct of any members of this administration, they will be reviewed at the highest level here in the White House by [chief of staff] Jim Baker and myself.
Could there be another Watergate in the sense that anyone in this administration would attempt to cover up wrongdoing?
No. There would never be a Watergate, since no one in this administration would attempt to cover up wrongdoing.