By David Kurlander
Only moments after the Electoral College confirmed President-elect Joe Biden’s victory on Monday, President Trump tweeted that Attorney General Bill Barr was resigning before Christmas. Barr’s milquetoast exit—complete with a glowing farewell note about the administration’s victories—seems a bit anticlimactic, particularly following the political furor surrounding his whitewashing of the Mueller Report, his dismissal of the Flynn case, and his complicity in the infamous Lafayette Square incident. Barr’s attempt to exit with a proverbial smile, however, is a familiar trope. Back in the final year of the Reagan administration, another Republican attorney general, Edwin Meese, left office in a similarly defensive tone at the end of his own stormy tenure…
On August 5th, 1988, President Reagan and Attorney General Ed Meese said their public goodbyes in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Reagan—sticking by his friend to the end—addressed Meese with his trademark melodramatic verve: “You’ve been through a hell-on-wheels lately…I’ve always figured that most lynch mobs aren’t hanging the right people anyway. They’re just there for the hanging.”
The road to the Roosevelt Room wake started in 1967, when Reagan became California governor and brought on Meese—a law-and-order Alameda County prosecutor—as his extradition and clemency secretary. Meese ultimately became Governor Reagan’s chief of staff and conservative attack dog, overseeing welfare reform efforts and orchestrating the 1969 crackdown on anti-war protestors at People’s Park in Berkeley.
Upon Reagan’s insurgent presidential victory in 1981, Meese entered the White House as Counselor to the President for Policy, a cabinet-level position. He helped implement supply-side economics and the expansion of the War on Drugs. Reagan appointed him attorney general in 1985, and Meese managed to weather dicey confirmation hearings that focused on his messy tax history and his labeling of the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling as “wrong” and “infamous.” Once installed, Meese also chaired a much publicized Commission on Pornography.
The alleged misconduct that led to Meese’s eventual resignation orbited E. Robert Wallach, the liberal one-time head of the San Francisco Bar Association. Wallach met Meese in law school and improbably remained a close collaborator, even when Wallach mounted a longshot 1976 campaign for the U.S. Senate on a marijuana decriminalization and gay rights platform and embraced a series of increasingly flamboyant public trademarks, including officially fashioning his name in lower-case lettering: “e. robert (bob) wallach.” “There was something Chagall-like about him,” said former Nixon advisor and Wallach friend Len Garment in a 1988 New York Times profile, “a first impression of a floating quality, a mixture of the real and the not real.”
Near the beginning of Reagan’s first term, Wallach began mailing Meese memos about WedTech, a Bronx-based baby carriage-maker that aimed to start selling small engines to the Army for portable field generators. Wallach claimed he got involved with WedTech because they employed many Puerto Rican immigrants. Wallach also got $1.3 million for his counsel. In 1982, Wallach asked Meese to intervene on behalf of WedTech, and Meese in turn put pressure on his Pentagon contacts to give the company “a fair hearing” for the Army engines. WedTech got the engine contract and a ton of positive press (Reagan even called their CEO, John Mariotta, a mold for “heroes of the ‘80s”). But the company began to implode under the weight of its technical incompetence and its convoluted (and ultimately illegal) financing structure.
The Wallace-Meese connection only came out when WedTech went bankrupt in 1986. An independent counsel, veteran trial lawyer James McKay, eventually came aboard to investigate the origins of WedTech’s embedment in the defense establishment. In addition to uncovering Meese’s Pentagon intervention, McKay quickly found another area of interest in the Wallach-Meese memo stream. In 1985, the massive San Francisco-based engineering firm Bechtel brought on Wallach to secure political cooperation with a proposed oil pipeline they wanted to build from Iraq to Jordan. Wallach had in turn asked Meese to orchestrate a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who could help to ensure Israel did not attack the project because of its links to Saddam Hussein. A brief meeting with Peres, Wallach, and Meese seemingly did take place, but the pipeline was never built. Still, the imbroglio smacked of the same under-the-table foreign policy that was playing out far more dramatically with the lingering Iran-Contra investigation.
In the early months of 1988, as press coverage of McKay’s probes into WedTech and the pipeline intensified, Meese held a series of anxious press conferences designed to reassert control over the Department of Justice. “I’ve always had a good relationship with Mrs. Reagan,” Meese said defensively in response to press questions suggesting the the First Lady wanted him gone. No, Nancy Reagan did not want him gone, he told fierce reporters at the DOJ Great Hall. Meese went on to dodge questions about what circumstances would compel him to resign. There was no stopping the bleeding, though—Meese’s DOJ allies were jumping ship, led by the much-respected then-Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Bill Weld. Vice President George H.W. Bush even told supporters in Wisconsin that “a need exists to restore confidence in the Justice Department.”
An oddly relevant cameo: A youngish Rudy Giuliani played an important role in escalating anti-Meese attitudes. Giuliani, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, oversaw the criminal cases against WedTech. As McKay continued probing Meese’s Wallach connections, SDNY zeroed in on legislators who took bribes from WedTech. Giuliani instructed his prosecutors to withhold case documents from the Department of Justice until Meese—his ostensible boss—agreed to recuse himself. And when Mario Biaggi, a Bronx congressman accused of taking millions in bribes from WedTech, tried to use Meese’s involvement as a defense, prosecutor Ed Little, with Giuliani’s approval, said in response, “There are two short answers to this ‘Meese defense. The first is, ‘Meese was a sleaze.’ The second is, ‘Meese was a sleaze, too.’ Also. In addition. To these people.” The press seized on the criticism: prosecutors were calling the attorney general names in open court.
When McKay’s report finally dropped—stopping short of recommending indictment for Meese but painting a pretty sordid picture of his entanglements with Wallach—the attorney general at last put in his papers. “The false allegations have been put to rest,” Meese told reporters. “I have determined over the course of a few weeks here that it would be advantageous for me to return to private life before the administration ends.” And that takes the story back to the Roosevelt Room, with the hugs, smiles, and recriminations toward the press.
Although Barr is in a markedly different situation from Meese—seemingly forced out by a vindictive president, rather than prolongedly defended by a loyal one—he’s still trying to wrap up his turbulent saga with the same decidedly dissonant bonhomie.
For more on the WedTech scandal, check out James Traub’s Too Good to Be True: The Outrageous Story of WedTech. To hear in more depth about Meese’s judicial philosophy from the source, pick up his memoir, With Reagan: The Inside Story. And to get a more critical view of Meese’s impact, read New Yorker writer John Cassidy’s article on President Trump’s decision to award Meese the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.
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