Law & Principles

Patrick B. McGuigan | August 6, 2008

Uncommon Sense, and Meese the Scholar

Patrick B. McGuigan

It's been awhile, but I used to be Ed Meese's editor. Meese contributed to two books I compiled in Washington D.C. Additionally, he was a featured speaker at two judicial reform conferences Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation hosted, giving speeches later published as part of proceedings I prepared for publication.

Being Meese's "editor" wasn't tough. His words rarely need refinement. He writes as he thinks: conservatively and efficiently.

As the voice of the common man in Ronald Reagan's White House, Meese never got enough credit for his academic and intellectual counters to the late Justice William Brennan's expansive liberal views of government and the judicial function.

In 1983, Meese told a packed room at a conference in Arlington, Virginia how important it was to leaven studies of crime and its causes with "common sense," allowing policy proposals "to compete in the marketplace of ideas." The challenge of crime-fighting, he said, "should be plain to anyone uninhibited by a legal education." Namely, "If criminals are not punished, crime will proliferate."

Conservatives cheer words like that, to be sure, but Meese's views, developed as a professor and a prosecutor, are deeply informed and multi-layered. He's spent his career with a foot in two camps: academia, and the "real world" of policy and politics, where the limits of ideas are discovered in daily living.

In the first chapter of the 1986 book Crime and Punishment in Modern America, Meese reflected: "Crime exacts a horrible toll on all those who suffer its violence, intimidation, and deceit; while at the same time eroding the humanity of the person responsible for it." He laid out, in plain words, the ways in which fear tears "the fabric of society." His essay was seminal in the book of proposed alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes.

Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork, my memoir and analysis of the most significant domestic policy defeat of the Reagan era, criticized both the president and Meese, his second attorney general. Despite this, Meese told thousands of allies in the national conservative movement to read the book, "so we can do better next time." That "next time" turned out to be the fight for Clarence Thomas.

Throughout his career, Meese has encouraged the political equivalent of military "after-action" reporting and analysis, to improve performance and cohesion. In a political world where criticism breeds resentment and so many nurture grudges, Meese is a man without rancor, much like the president he served.

It all adds up to a consequential life in consequential times. Writing for National Review 20 years ago this month (August 5, 1988), in a defense of the Reagan presidency, Judge Bork himself wrote: "A major achievement, due in large measure to the much-maligned Ed Meese, has been the re-orientation of the federal judiciary. Care was taken to select judges who understand that judging is not politics. The constitutional philosophy of original understanding, and the judicial restraint it begets, have become a public issue."

There's no better spokesman on law, liberty, and the Constitution than Reagan's good and faithful servant, Ed Meese.

Patrick B. McGuigan

Independent Journalist

A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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