Attorney General Edwin Meese III has long been the target of criticism from liberals and others who question his political values, performance in office, and personal ethics. But Mr. Meese has been able to count on the steadfast support of conservatives, who have regarded him as their bulwark against moderates in the Reagan administration. That could be changing.
Even some of Meese's staunchest backers are privately livid over what they see as bungling in President Reagan's nomination of Judge Douglas Ginsburg to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Judge Ginsburg, who was tapped by the President after the Senate rejected the nomination of Judge Robert Bork, hastily withdrew his name after it was disclosed that he previously smoked marijuana.
It is understood that Meese prevailed upon Mr. Reagan to select Judge Ginsburg over the objections of White House chief of staff Howard Baker Jr., and some conservatives are blaming Meese for failing to perform a thorough background check.
``If he hadn't been so dumb, he wouldn't have picked Ginsburg in the first place. He's weakened Reagan all the way around,'' says a prominent conservative spokesman, who talked only on the condition that he not be identified. ``He's a part of this slide we've gotten into. I'm not sure it's bottomed out yet. A lot of people think he should resign.''
But Meese has not lost the backing of the one conservative whose opinion counts the heaviest - President Reagan. After announcing the nomination of federal appeals court Judge Anthony Kennedy to the high court on Wednesday, Reagan bristled at the suggestion by reporters that Meese botched the Ginsburg nomination. The President left the briefing with his arm around the shoulder of a beaming Meese.
A White House official who worked with Meese closely for four years says the attorney general is a victim of his own good nature.
``He's a very brilliant man, but quietly so, he's not one of these arrogant smart guys.
``The day-to-day stuff gets by him. He doesn't pay attention to detail and he's a terrible judge of quality talent. He suffers from bad staff and bad advice, and because he has a big heart, he doesn't get rid of the people giving him a hard time. That's why he gets in trouble. There's not a venal bone in his body,'' the official says.
The attorney general is no stranger to the hot seat. Last week he made his sixth appearance this year before a federal grand jury, testifying before the panel investigating the Iran-contra affair.
Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh is looking into how Meese handled the preliminary investigation that uncovered the diversion to the Nicaraguan contras of profits from arms sales to Iran. Some critics say Meese deliberately or negligently gave former National Security Council aide Oliver North time to shred documents about the scandal.
Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine, a member of the Senate panel that investigated Iran-contra, told the Monitor that, at the least, he is troubled by the ``informality'' of Meese's investigation:
``You've got Ed Meese going around to Oliver North taking a two-hour interrogation. Then meeting Admiral Poindexter [the former national-security adviser] in the White House mess, saying, `John, what can you tell me about this?' A 20-minute conversation.''
At the same time that Meese's professionalism is being questioned, another special prosecutor, James C. McKay, is probing some of the attorney general's financial dealings.
Several weeks ago Meese testified for 10 hours before a grand jury regarding his involvement with the scandal-ridden Wedtech Corporation. Four top officials of the bankrupt company have admitted to bribing federal, state, and local officials to obtain government contracts, and five investigations into the matter are continuing.
The attorney general came under criminal investigation after it was disclosed that in 1985 he invested $55,000 with W.Franklyn Chinn, an investment manager who sat on Wedtech's board until last February. Meese says none of his money was invested in the Bronx defense contractor.
Meese also had frequent contact with E.Robert Wallach, a lawyer and longtime friend from San Francisco who was paid $1.3 million by Wedtech from 198l through 1986. Meese acknowledged interceding in Wedtech's behalf, when he was White House counselor and the company was seeking a $32 million no-bid Army contract. Meese denies that he acted improperly.
``As a person of the law, he's a standing joke,'' says Burt Neuborne, a law professor at New York University and former legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union. ``There are people in his department you take seriously, people of substance as lawyers, as people, but he's not one of them.''
But Prof. Sheldon Goldman, a constitutional scholar at the University of Massachusetts, says that, provided he is not indicted, ``Meese will go down in history for shrewd handling of the attorney generalship [and] for turning the ideological discourse to his own turf. If you define success as getting your agenda across, he has been successful.''
Professor Goldman says Meese has been the point man facilitating conservative appointments to the federal bench and fashioning a ``judiciary less inclined to be sympathetic to criminal defendants.'' He adds, ``There have been very few criminal procedure issues the administration has lost.''
Professor Neuborne says the Meese legacy will be of an ``active political figure who did what the President wanted him to do, a politician who acted as an attorney general.''