In his two months as attorney general, Dick Thornburgh has disappointed a number of conservatives who feel he has tried to get political mileage out of making what they regard as veiled attacks on his predecessor, Edwin Meese III.
Thornburgh denies suggestions that any of his actions have been aimed at Meese, whom the former Pennsylvania governor has known since the early days of the Reagan administration when Meese was White House counselor."What I have tried to do is to dampen the enthusiasm for Ed Meese-bashing that seemed to be prevailing prior to my coming here," Thornburgh said in an interview Friday. "If anybody's going to be bashed it ought to be me. I'm the attorney general. I can take it."
Thornburgh's ethics speech earlier this month didn't mention Meese, but annoyed several conservatives, who felt it dredged up memories of the 14-month criminal investigation of Meese which ended in July. The speech calls for a review of Justice Department ethics policies.
Independent counsel James McKay decided he wouldn't seek Meese's indictment, but concluded Meese had probably twice violated conflict-of-interest laws and tax laws. The probe stemmed from Meese's official acts on behalf of longtime friend E. Robert Wallach, a lawyer whose clients included scandal-plagued Wedtech Corp.
"I think Thornburgh himself is doing a pretty good job as attorney general, but there's a difference between putting your own imprint on the department and trying to distance yourself from previous administrations," said Eugene Hickok, a special assistant in the Office of Legal Counsel under Meese and now a political science professor at Dickinson College.
"What he needs to do is establish his own reputation, not say how he is different from Ed Meese and not try to resuscitate directly or indirectly the problems of Ed Meese."
Thornburgh insisted he "wasn't referring to my predecessor at all" with the ethics speech. He said the springboard for it was a recent poll showing widespread public perception of corruption in government.
"We would be foolish and not serving the president appropriately if we were to ignore" those perceptions, the attorney general said.
In the ethics speech, Thornburgh said a study is needed of the question of how the relationship between the attorney general and the president "can be both as close as it should be and as correct as it ought to be." President Reagan and Meese have worked closely together for over two decades.