Smooth Operator Ed Meese Plans a Bump-Free Reagan Transition to the White House

updated 11/24/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/24/1980 01:00AM

When he moved to Washington last week to plan the transition to a new Administration, California lawyer Edwin Meese III already knew his way around the Executive Office Building. Last spring, long before the primaries ended, the veteran Reagan adviser checked the building next to the White House as he began blocking out offices for the Reagan staff. That kind of positive thinking plus dedication to the Reagan cause are two reasons why Meese was the President-elect's choice to serve as his alter ego in Washington until Inauguration Day.

Meese, 48, has held Reagan's confidence since 1967, when he was hired as legal counsel by the newly elected governor of California. Two and a half years later Meese was promoted to chief of staff, and he returned to private life in 1975. Then last February, after Reagan had been defeated by George Bush in the Iowa caucuses and his presidential hopes nose-dived, the candidate fired three top aides and summoned Meese to be his campaign chief of staff. "The Governor was shaken," an insider reports. "He began to understand what those other guys were in it for—he was their horse, nothing more. I think the Governor felt Meese was the only one left who cared about him, someone he could turn to for honest advice."

The President-elect has said that he admires Meese's "sheer ability and brainpower." Reagan is not at ease with people he believes are purely political. Meese assuredly is not. He is interested in government but not obsessed with politics.

As director of the transition, Meese will be shuttling between Washington and California, supervising a $2 million budget and a staff of more than 200. His team is charged with finding key personnel, maintaining links with the Carter aides, drafting budget recommendations and new legislation. The purpose, as the Reagan camp puts it, is to allow the new Administration "to hit the ground running." Since Reagan has always relied heavily on top staff, Meese considers his head-hunting role as critical. The plan is to create a small "super-Cabinet" in which, say, the Secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury will run their own departments while also advising clusters of other Cabinet offices and federal agencies. Meese hopes to prevent Reagan from being spread too thin, but acknowledges that previous Presidents have been unable to achieve that goal. He has scrutinized reports showing how Reagan's predecessors failed. "I have no illusions about how hard it is," he says, "but I think we have a shot at it."

Many predict Meese will become the next White House chief of staff, but he professes disinterest. "I've been chief of staff in various capacities and am not sure I would be eager to do that again," he says. "It would depend on what the Governor would like me to do."

A fourth-generation Californian, Meese grew up in the same Oakland house as his father, who was county treasurer. Ed graduated from Yale and belatedly, at 27, married his high school sweetheart, Ursula Herrick. "It was a whirlwind courtship of 11 years," Ursula, 49, quips. (Procrastination remains a Meese frailty.) The couple live in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa with two of their three children—Scott, 17, and Dana, 14. Michael, 20, is a West Point cadet.

Meese has seldom strayed far from his home state. After getting his law degree at Berkeley, he was appointed to its faculty. Though personally amiable, the young professor proved a hardliner in 1964 by directing a police operation that cleared out a university building occupied by Free Speech Movement demonstrators. Three years later, as Reagan's legal counsel, Meese was a strong advocate of capital punishment as a crime deterrent and even went to San Quentin to observe one execution for the governor. After Reagan left office, Meese retreated to a private law practice and to the University of San Diego, where he is now on leave as director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Management.

Friends believe Meese would eagerly accept the job of Attorney General, giving him leverage to reshape the federal criminal code in accordance with his law-and-order sympathies. Still, it seems likely that whatever Reagan's wishes, Meese will feel compelled to honor them. "As organized and determined as he is," one observer believes, "I'm sure he's already picked out a Washington home for the family and chosen the lettering for his office."

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