A satirical song at the Griddon Club banquet, listend to intently by the President, had key presidential aide Ed Meese advising Mr. Reagan that he must "heed" Ed Meese and "when you heed Ed Meese -- you're wonderful." The President laughed. The crowd, most of them high up in the Reagan administration, laughed, too.
How influential is Mr. Meese? In an interview the other day in a room just outside the President's Oval Office, I asked Mr. Meese whether it bothered him that he, Jim Baker, and Mike Deaver are being increasingly perceived as the Big Three, the power threesome next to the President.
Mr. Meese's answer: "I don't think it bother us. Because that's our job -- to assist the President in every way we can. The President makes the decisions. He is the one who provides the leadership. We are there to assist him carrying out the responsibilities of the White House."
I narrowed the question a bit:
"Some old timers are saying that you are a superior among the other so-called equals in the Big Three -- and that you look more and more like an assistant president. What do you say to that?"
Here Mr. Meese shook his head and said: "I don't think there is an assistant president among any of us here. I think there is only one President and the rest of us are definitely assistants to him."
The obvious "superior" clout of Mr. Meese is, indeed, a prime subject of conversation in Washington political and press circles. An examination of the Meese influence, reflected from the President he serves, runs along these lines:
During this interregnum when the President has been somewhat out of the mainstream, Mr. Meese has played the lead role (with Baker and Deaver almost but not quite alongside) in seeing that the administration keeps functioning. True, the vice-president jumped in to take on ceremonial and political assignments of the President, but it was Meese who was perceived as the leading lever puller in the coordination that was needed.
Mr. Meese is the only member of the Big Three with Cabinet rank. This, of itself, gives him a special, elevated position.
Additionally, Meese is the President's liaison with the Cabinet and the chief coordinator of what Mr. Reagan calls his "Cabinet government."
Thus Meese was the logical person to take major responsibility and the steps needed to keep the government functioning when the President was wounded.
Meese's influence stems from his easy access to the President (he, Baker, and Deaver, may walk in and out of the Oval Office -- and do) and from his long-time close relationship with the President.
Deaver also has had a long personal association with Mr. Reagan, but those who go back to Reagan's Sacramento days say Deaver's relationship is different from that of Meese. "Deaver is very close to Reagan," one Reagan intimate says. "But his tie doesn't involve the kind of governmental-administrative usefulness that Meese has always provided Reagan."
And chief of staff Jim Baker, also in very tight with the President these days, is a newcomer to the Reagan inner circle, only a few months away from managing the Bush presidential campaign.
Several Reaganites have described Mr. Meese's chief usefulness to Mr. Reagan as his ability to sit in on a Reagan meeting with top gubernatorial aides (in Sacramento) or, as now, with other Cabinet members and, at the end, provide a brilliant summing up of what has been presented.
Mr. Meese is seen as the President's synthesizer of ideas and proposals. No one is suggesting that in such a process Mr. Meese injects his own thoughts. Yet the influence of the person who quickly puts together a discussion, by necessity slightly subordinating one suggestion while underscoring another, obviously is considerable.
Any reporter in this city knows that during recent weeks the best interview one could get -- if he wanted a well-articulated, mirrored expression of the President's views on issu es both foreign and domestic -- would be to sit down with Mr. Meese.