U.S.NEWS & WORLD REPORT -- May 16, 1988
In more polite society, Ed Meese would already have his resignation on the President's desk. Such etiquette, which George Bush both understands and observes, would dictate the Attorney General's departure as the Right Thing to Do for Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. There would be a gentlemanly arrangement—perhaps a job for Meese at a conservative think tank or a position running the Reagan Library in California—to give the President's good friend some decent cover. And all this might have been gracefully orchestrated last summer.
Silently seeking credit. Unfortunately for the President in-waiting, neither Ed Meese nor his presidential patron has shown any interest in such refined exits. But Bush's own separation anxiety has kept him from breaking with the President over Meese, as some advisers urged months ago. Privately, Bush tells close associates he wants Meese out. Publicly, campaign aides like spokesman Pete Teeley fret that Meese will be a "severe handicap" if he is still Attorney General this fall. And presidential friend Stu Spencer even volunteered a similar assessment—"the Ed Meese situation" is a "negative" for Bush—during a recent lunch with the Reagans, both of whom remained pointedly silent. That signal only reinforced Bush's instincts to stay subterranean, at least for now. An overt and uncharacteristic Bush push to oust Meese would clearly anger the President and probably alienate other party conservatives as well. "The wounds," says Spencer, "would be too overwhelming."
The remaining political dilemma, though, is not exactly Lilliputian. With Meese in office, Democrats still have the obvious symbol for the percolating sleaze issue. And Bush's silence doesn't help discredit the damaging caricature of him as what GOP analyst Kevin Phillips calls "the do-nothing 'Doonesbury' Vice President." Still, Bush "can't be perceived as trying to push Meese out," says one GOP insider. "But there has got to be a way he can get some credit for it if Meese finally does go." It is no surprise, then, that Bush aides are happy to characterize their anti-Meese sentiments for public consumption. "I'm assuming Ed can read the newspapers," grumbles one senior adviser. And it is no coincidence that aides point out that Bush specifically asked to attend a recent session with the President and former Justice Department officials Arnold Burns and William Weld, who resigned to protest Meese's continuing tenure. At that session, Reagan again remained silent while Bush asked two pointed questions: Are other political appointees leaving the department? (Answer: Yes.) How is morale? (Answer: Bad.)
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