This is a rush transcript from "Life, Liberty & Levin," April 1, 2018. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
MARK LEVIN, HOST, LIFE, LIBERTY & LEVIN: Hello, America, I'm Mark Levin. This is 'Life, Liberty & Levin,' and our special guest, former Attorney General Ed Meese. How are you, sir?
EDWIN MEESE III, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: Fine, thanks, Mark.
LEVIN: Well, there's a lot going on in the country these days, but before we get into that, you were Attorney General of the United States, the 75th Attorney General of the United States and we're going to get into that in a little bit.
But before that, you had quite a substantial career, too. I'm curious to know, you go way back with Ronald Reagan. How did you get to know Ronald Reagan and when did you get to begin serving Ronald Reagan?
MEESE: Well, it all began right after he was elected as Governor of California in 1966. At that time, I was in the district attorney's office in Alameda County. That's the county in California that has both Oakland and Berkeley. Both the rather significant cities for various reasons, and I enjoyed my work there, I enjoyed working with the police. I enjoyed trying criminal cases, and I'm going to say reasonably successful.
And so I was not looking for a job, but one day out of the blue, I got a call, would I come up and meet the new governor? Or the governor-elect at that time? December of 1966. I guess, I really didn't learn until much later how he had gotten my name, but actually, when I was in the district attorney's office, our boss, the district attorney of Alameda County was the chairman of what was called the Law and Legislative Committee of Law Enforcement in the state. The Chiefs of Police, the Sheriffs, the district attorney's all had one committee that represented them in the state legislature.
My boss was the chairman of that committee, and so one of his deputies would go up to Sacramento and represent this group of law enforcement officials. It just happened to be my turn in 1961, so I was up there, and one of the senators in California remembered me in '66 when Ronald Reagan was forming his staff and cabinet, and so that's how they somehow had gotten my name from my previous work there.
And so, I get this call out of the blue, and so I was not looking for a new job, and went up to Sacramento, met some of his transition team, and then they asked me to come back to meet with him.
And so, I met him. He walked into the office and asked me to come into his private office. We talked, just the two of us for a half hour. I was so impressed with him, quite frankly, and I was surprised at the end of the half hour when he offered me the job, as what became his legal affairs secretary, and his staff member who is responsible for working with the legal community, with the judiciary, with law enforcement, that sort of thing.
And so, I remember accepting on the spot, and then driving home 75 miles to try to explain to my wife how we were going to have a change in our life. And it was a great opportunity. I thought I'd do it for a couple of years and then go back to the district attorney's office, but at the end of two years as legal affairs secretary, his chief of staff, Bill Clark, became a judge, and he asked me to be his executive assistant and chief of staff, and I did that for the remaining six years of his term.
LEVIN: You were with him from the beginning. He was a true outsider and so were you?
MEESE: I was definitely an outsider both to politics and certainly to state government.
LEVIN: There were a number of riots, protests in the college campuses in California. How did the future president, how did Governor Reagan and you, how did you deal with these?
MEESE: Well, one of the things that the governor did as these things were developing, at that the time I was the legal affairs secretary. He had me go around the state with the principal people that might be involved in dealing with unrest, with the demonstrations or disorders.
The head of the State Highway Patrol, the head of the Department of Justice Law Enforcement Branch, the head of the National Guard, the director of Emergency Services, and we went around and talked with the mayor and police chief of each of the major cities in places where there were campuses where you might have problems, and made sure that of two things. Number one, that they were prepared to deal with these situations; and secondly, to assure them that the state resources, the California Highway Patrol, if necessary, the National Guard, would back them up so that they could take firm action early in the game, and not let these things get out of control and then you have to fight back and try to regain what has been lost, which was the peace and order of the community.
And so, Ronald Reagan's idea was to be very firm, at the same time, to recognize that you give people the opportunity not to participate in disorder or riots or breaking laws, and to -- if necessary, listen to what the grievances were and to try to treat people fairly, but always with the understanding that no one has the right to either break the law or to trespass on other people's rights.
LEVIN: And there were some cases when that occurred.
LEVIN: You didn't tolerate it very much, did you?
MEESE: No, as a matter of fact, we had a couple of situations where it was necessary to bring in state resources to support the local law enforcement, and in one case to actually call in the National Guard to prevent property damage or people being hurt in the community.
LEVIN: And now let us jump ahead a little bit. Ronald Reagan decides he wants to be President of the United States. The first go-around, the delegates in California proposed Reagan, during the convention, the second time around, he takes on Gerald Ford and almost beats him.
The third time around, he beats the field and he's nominated President of the United States. You were with him pretty much during all these occasions. What can you tell us about the man? I mean, you saw him behind the scenes. We saw him in front of the scenes and so forth and so on. You saw him as governor. You saw him as a candidate. We'll get into the presidency in a minute. How did he treat people? What about his principles? What was his mission?
MEESE: Well, he was very -- he had definite ideas, for one thing in 1968, he didn't feel that he was really running for President, but a lot of people were promoting that idea. Some of them within his own circle of advisers.
I frankly, along with Bill Clark, the two of us, he was the chief of staff at that time, we didn't think that it was a good idea for him to run for President. For one thing, he was doing a good job in California, but there was a lot yet to be done.
And secondly, he was really new to the game of politics. And I don't think he ever felt that he was really running, but a number of people -- he was the favorite son candidate in California, and there was a reason for that, and that was to bring all the segments of the Republican Party which had been torn asunder a few years before particularly in the Goldwater-Rockefeller fight of 1964 and he wanted to bring the party back together.
So, for that reason, he ran as a favorite son candidate. And then at the convention in Miami, there were people who wanted him to be kind of a backup in case the man that they were supporting, which was Nixon at the time, in case he faltered in the second or third ballot, they wanted to have a place -- a conservative to rely on, and so that's why they put his name.
LEVIN: Did Reagan like Nixon?
MEESE: I think he did, I think he did. I think he respected him and he liked him, and he was -- he also -- he believed that Nixon would be a good President and so he was very supportive of Nixon, and then, of course, in 1976 he regretfully ran against an incumbent Republican President, Gerald Ford, because he liked Ford also, but he felt the country was on the wrong track in two ways.
Number one, the administration then was still essentially taking the programs and the philosophy that Lyndon Johnson brought in with the so- called 'Great Society,' and that they were continuing those programs, and even building on them both in the Nixon and the Ford administrations, and so he felt that the government was growing too fast, the Federal government was spending too much money.
And the other thing was, he had studied communism from the early days. His early days in the 1940s, when he was President of the Screen Actors Guild, and the Communist Party USA tried to take over the movie industry in Hollywood because they wanted to use it for propaganda. And so, they tried to infiltrate the various unions, and one of those unions was the Screen Actors Guild which Ronald Reagan was the president.
And he had led those unions to fight the communists and to root them out so that the communists didn't have a stronghold in the major communications vehicle in those days -- the movies.
And so, he read about communism internally in the United States, but he also read about international communism, and so he developed his own ideas, so in 1976, when we had so-called Detente, the idea of communism and freedom existing side-by-side, he knew that that was not a stable relationship, and therefore, he felt that the Soviet Union was actually cheating on this idea of Detente.
And as a result of that, we were being weakened, and that the forces of oppression, particularly where the countries behind the iron curtain were under the strong yoke of the communist, that this is not a good way for people to continue to live in those countries. And so, for that reason, he essentially took on the foreign policy of the then-existing administration.
LEVIN: He almost won.
MEESE: And he almost won in '76.
LEVIN: And he was disappointed. I mean, he almost won, he was disappointed, and Martin Anderson and others who worked for him, said the next day he was off and running again.
MEESE: Well, I think that's a little bit of an exaggeration, I don't think he was really -- because I think at that time, he was -- at that time he was in his late '60s and nobody had ever run for President or at least been successful for President at the age of 70, so he was still uncertain, I think, and my personal conversations with him, he was uncertain, but he didn't want to rule it out. And so, he wanted to leave that open as a possibility and, of course, as he moved ahead, particularly as Jimmy Carter became President and he saw things continuing to move in the wrong direction, that was when he firmly believed that it was important he run again, which he did, of course, and quite frankly, Ronald Reagan at 70 was better than many people at 50 in those days.
LEVIN: Now you have people like Biden who is 74 and sort of talking about running and so forth. It's almost absurd.
MEESE: Well, certainly, it's absurd about Mr. Biden running at any time.
LEVIN: Reagan in his private life in dealing with and you others who were very close to him, a compassionate man?
MEESE: Very compassionate. You know, we had a tragedy in our family, and when I came back into the office, the first two people that were there, this is the day after it happened, was -- were Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
LEVIN: You lost your son.
MEESE: Yes, and they couldn't have been more compassionate, more helpful. You know what he did? He said, 'You have got to take some time -- a week, and get your family back together.' And he gave us Camp David so that we could have a place away from everybody else where we could just be with our family.
At that time that our son was killed, unfortunately, our family was literally all over the world. I had a son in the Army who was in South America. I had a daughter who was with friends up in Alaska or in the northwest someplace.
My wife was traveling. I was traveling in the West Coast, and we were able to bring our family back together. But that was the kind of thing that he did. Even when he was governor, I remember there was one instance where this was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and a young man -- a young man, I think a sergeant or so in the Army had, sent him a letter, and enclosed $20.00 and said, 'Dear Governor, our first wedding anniversary will be on such and such a date, about two weeks ahead.' He said, 'Would you mind taking this money and buying some flowers and getting them for my wife?'
And Ronald Reagan, of course, not only added a few dollars, quite a few dollars for a little better bouquet and then literally went to the man's house and personally presented this to this Army sergeant's wife. But those are the kinds of things he did.
He had friends like Frank Sinatra and others, and when he would get a letter from someone who had had some hardship or a kid saying, 'My bike was struck and destroyed,' he would point this out to the friend and that friend would anonymously then take care of whatever that mission needed to be to help some person somewhere in California.
LEVIN: When we come back, I want to talk about your tenure in the Reagan administration. You did a number of remarkable things that are still having an effect today.
And don't forget, ladies and gentlemen, you can watch LevinTV every week night on CRTV.com. I hope you'll join us, you can go to our website at CRTV.com or give us a call, 844-LEVIN-TV, 844-LEVIN-TV. We'll be right back.
Welcome back, Attorney General Meese. You were Attorney General for really quite a significant period of time. You were the 75th Attorney General of the United States. One of the areas where you really pioneered was the principle of originalism.
What is the principle of originalism and why did you find it necessary 30 years ago, maybe more than 30 years ago to go around the country and make these very prominent speeches about it?
What was your objective? Were you pushing back against the courts? Go ahead.
MEESE: Well, originalism is really taking the Constitution as it is actually written and then having the courts interpret it as, in fact, what the words actually say. And the originalism is, what was the concept? What were the ideas? What was the meaning behind those words that are on the paper of the Constitution? What did the founders of this country have in mind? And to be sure that the courts are not making up and substituting their own personal preferences, their policy ideas or their political biases for what is actually on the pages of the Constitution, and what the original meaning, the original understanding of the founders was as they wrote those words.
The Constitution is an amazing document. The fact that it's lasted over almost two and a half centuries, which whereas you look at some other countries like France, for example, when they have had a couple of dozen Constitutions because they have to keep rewriting them.
The founders were really well-educated people. They'd studied other civilizations, other successful governments and so, they got the best of the ideas but also, they learned about the mistakes that had been made.
And that's why they didn't try to create a municipal code or anticipate every situation. They've put into the Constitution a set of principles, a set of ideas which, in fact, were then implementing the Declaration of Independence, and you almost have to read those two documents together in order to understand what they did.
And so, the Constitution now was the framework of how a government should be organized and then the various principles in which that government should be operated. And so, the idea of originalism was for the interpretations by the courts and by the other branches, by the President, by the Congress, to be faithful to what the Constitution actually said, and we had gone a long ways from that, particularly in the 20th Century.
From the early 1900s, you had a group, they called themselves progressives. They really weren't progressives at all. They were really people who were trying to turn the country and the Constitution in a different direction from what the founders had in mind and what they put on paper in the Constitution. And so, that was the reason to try to bring judges, particularly, the federal judiciary of the Supreme Court, back to what the Constitution actually said, and the laws passed by Congress.
So, that we didn't have courts and judges usurping the powers of the Congress, usurping the powers of the executive branch, and also quite frankly, changing the way in which the Constitution was being read.
LEVIN: And it's amazing because you felt it necessary to go out there and make speeches and press the case, and as I recall at the time having worked with you, the media got very angry with you.
The media just couldn't believe that here you are rejecting this notion of a living and breathing Constitution, and telling the courts and anybody else who's involved in the law, you have a duty to show fidelity to the document itself, and yet in some quarters that was controversial?
MEESE: Well, it was controversial and certain organs of public opinion, prominent newspapers, prominent commentators on TV and radio took offense at this because it didn't jibe with their left-wing thinking, and therefore, they were trying to thwart what we were doing. And incidentally, this was not just my idea. This really came from the President.
Ronald Reagan was a great student of history, particularly the founding. He understood. As a matter of fact, if you go back and read his speeches, you will find references to the Constitution replete throughout his speeches because that's what he believed his job was, it was to faithfully interpret, faithfully follow the Constitution.
And so, it was his idea, really, that we should adhere to the Constitution. He said this very eloquently in the installation of Bill Rehnquist as the Chief Justice and Nino Scalia as the Associate Justice in Rehnquist's spot.
He put it very carefully, that he said that the Constitutionalists, the people who wrote the Constitution, they didn't agree on a lot of things, but the one thing they did agree was that the Constitution should be faithfully interpreted by the courts, and that judicial restraint, that is recognizing the tremendous power that judges have, that they had to be restrained in exercising that power in order to preserve the liberty of the people.
And so, this idea of talking about Constitutional fidelity was something that it wasn't just in the Justice Department or the Attorney General's office, it was something that he felt should permeate the entire federal government.
LEVIN: You had quite a remarkable staff over there at the Justice Department. You had among others, Sam Alito, who is now a justice.
LEVIN: John Bolton, who's heading over there as National Security Council and numerous others. So, you focused rather specifically and purposefully on how you hired people at your Department of Justice.
MEESE: Yes, we had a great team, including yourself, Mark, you did a great job, too. But these were outstanding lawyers, people who are faithful to the Constitution, and also people who are very skilled and experienced in the work that they were doing.
And you mentioned them, we also brought in a lot of people who had worked at the state and local level. Lowell Jensen, for example, who was my deputy, had been the district attorney of Alameda County. Steve Trott had been in the district attorney's office in Los Angeles.
LEVIN: Both of whom went onto be federal judges.
MEESE: They both went onto be federal judges and they did great jobs as top officials in the Department of Justice, but we also brought in a lot of young people, people who had been in law practice for a few years, but were in their 30s and some of them in the early 40s, and we've had a cadre of people then that went back out into the legal profession, came back in other administrations, and I was very proud of the group that I was privileged to work with in the Justice Department.
LEVIN: Many of them became professors?
MEESE: Yes, we have.
LEVIN: Was this your idea? You wanted to create a future generation of prominent originalists who can help spread the word?
MEESE: Absolutely. A group of people who can serve in subsequent administrations but also people who went into academic work. Steve Calabrese for example, Dave McIntosh.
MEESE: One is a professor and the next one runs Club for Growth and so forth.
MEESE: Right and the interesting thing was that I was very fortunate that the Federalist Society, which was a group of lawyers, started as a group of law students dedicated to liberty, dedicated to the Constitution, I had all three of the original founders.
There was one other from -- who later served also in the government, but I had three of them on my staff, and they in turn found other young people coming out of the law schools who could start in as interns or who could start in other places.
LEVIN: That was very, very impressive because that organization is still out there, pressing those matters. We'll be right back.
KELLY WRIGHT, CORRESPONDENT, FOX NEWS: Live from America's News Headquarters, I am Kelly Wright in Washington.
China retaliating against President Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum by putting tariffs of its own on more than 100 products from the US. Beijing is adding a 15 percent to 25 percent surcharge on everything from frozen pork to wine, and steel pipes to aluminum scraps. One hundred and twenty eight goods in all, this move by China's heightening fears of a possible trade war that could damage the global economy.
EPA chief Scott Pruitt is accused of renting a room in Washington from the wife of an energy lobbyist. Former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie once headed then President-elect Trump's transition team he says, this scandal could end Pruitt's job in the administration but EPA ethics officials say the rental agreement followed all federal ethics regulations.
I'm Kelly Wright. Now back to "Life, Liberty & Levin."
LEVIN: Attorney General Meese, we've just had this incredible -- I don't even know how to describe it -- budget process without a process or spending process. Apparently, the leadership met both parties. They come up with this massive omnibus bill, over 2,200 pages.
Most of the other members didn't see it. Senators are complaining they literally had 24 hours, they could not propose any amendments. House members complaining and saying they had 17 hours, and yet they both passed. What do you make of this? Is this what is intended by the framers of the Constitution?
MEESE: Absolutely not. I believe that this budget and quite frankly most of the budgets we've seen in many cases now for several years, we haven't even had a budget until almost halfway through the budget year. The budget goes from October to October. And today, we're just about halfway through the budget for 2018.
Now, how can people even plan in the various departments in the military where they're trying to look ahead to acquire the most modern weaponry and that sort of thing to do research and development. There is no way they can plan when they are halfway through the budget year before they get a budget and know what the resources are going to be.
But it's both a disgrace and quite frankly, an embarrassment to both parties. And particularly to the leadership right now that we have had this situation. You mentioned, no one has read the budget. I bet there's not a single member of Congress that has read the entire budget and knows what's in it.
As a result, there are going to be a lot of things that are going to popping up there, probably things that if people are really deliberating about the budget and had the opportunity to study it calmly and dispassionately, they wouldn't put a lot of the things in there that are there.
There's a lot of waste in there. There's a lot of things that the government shouldn't be doing and they are all hidden in this massive budget. So, they haven't had a chance to read it, but also it's way too much.
There is not, for example, in the Department of Education which shouldn't even be there because there's nothing in the Constitution that authorizes the federal government to get involved in education, but instead of cutting the budget like the President asked, he wanted to reduce the budget. His suggestion as I remember was a 10 percent reduction in the Department of Education. Instead, they had increased that budget by 6 percent. Now, that doesn't make sense.
So, it's wrong in terms of the size. It's wrong in the terms of the power that it gives the federal government and it is absolutely wrong in the process, or the lack of process as you point out.
LEVIN: I mean, we're supposed to be a representative republic. The vast majority of our representatives weren't even involved in the process, and the American people have a right to participate, too. You know, there are supposed to be 12 appropriation bills. They have the committees. I would be curious to know what's going on. And so, what happens is we, the people, 24 hours before, we can't read 2,200 pages either.
We get the news reports, things pop up. 'Oh, look at this expenditure and this expenditure,' but it's too late for anybody to do anything. Do you think this is because the system is just collapsed? Do you think it's somewhat intentional because they want to ram things through without much debate? What do you make of all this?
MEESE: I think it is somewhat intentional because quite frankly good budgeting means that you have to make decisions. You have to make decisions about what ought to be in. But even more important is, there ought to be decisions as what should not be in. Things that should not be funded by the federal government.
And certainly, the overall size, adding to the deficit, adding to the national debt is in the wrong direction. We ought to be reducing at a time of good economy that we are now gaining under this administration, we ought to be reducing the national debt, not increasing it. And so, I think in many ways, it is intentional, but it's also because the whole system has gotten out of whack.
You point out the appropriations bills. What the original founders had in mind was that there would be appropriations bills and that Congress would appropriate a certain amount of money for each of these things that they would go through committees and they would, in fact, be looked at with was some care as to what got included in the budget, rather than having some unseen forces over a couple of weeks in hiding, actually, putting together a budget and then putting it in front of the body, the elected representatives and say, 'Take it or leave it.'
And that's the wrong way to budget anything, but certainly wrong for a country like ours, where we are spending too much in the federal government and where the power of the federal government is expanding, not retracting.
LEVIN: And I see Chuck Schumer is thrilled to this, he goes to the Senate floor, praises it. Nancy Pelosi puts out a statement praising it. The real conservatives in the House and the Senate can't believe that this was put forth with a Republican House and a Republican Senate. The spending increases on discretionary domestic spending up almost 15 percent. Why? What's happened with the Republicans?
MEESE: I think the Republicans have just abdicated their position of leadership, and they are not providing leadership to even represent what the country has in mind. I don't think there's any sound member of the body politic really thinks that we should be adding to the national debt, but rather should be reducing the national debt or at least not making it worse.
Also, I think almost every citizen recognizes the fact that there are things the federal government should be doing, and I think there's -- anybody who knows anything about the government knows that there's a lot of fraud, a lot of waste, and a lot of mixed management that could be corrected which would save money, but also be much truer to the Constitution, which saw a government that was only doing those things which a federal government had to do because the states and local governments couldn't do them because they were truly national in scope.
And now, instead, we're dealing with things like school books and.
LEVIN: School lunch.
MEESE: School lunch, and all kinds of things at the local level, which shouldn't be one size fits all, dictated by Congress.
LEVIN: When we return, I'm going to ask the Attorney General what do you think about the Supreme Court today? We'll be right back
Attorney General Meese, the President made a wonderful selection in Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. There's a couple of other wonderful justices, Alito, Thomas and so forth, we miss Scalia very, very much. What is your take on the current Supreme Court in terms of originalism?
MEESE: Well, I think the Supreme Court today is better than it has been in the past. I think we have -- normally, we have close to five votes for Constitutional fidelity and that's very important.
As you point out, Justice Gorsuch has been a great addition. Probably one of the clearest writers on the court is Clarence Thomas, who is very careful and actually would go further to move the court in the direction of Constitutional fidelity.
So, I think that we have great prospects, and that's why it's so important that we continue to have a President who believes in the Constitution and in the appointment of judges at all levels because remember, the Courts of Appeal also are going to handle most of the things and the Constitutionality of laws, Constitutionality of federal executive actions are mostly decided at the Court of Appeals level, and then some excellent appointments there.
But we have to make sure that gets maintained. The 5-4 balance in favor of the Constitution is a very delicate balance right now and we could certainly use a couple more Constitutionalists on that court.
LEVIN: Sometimes we don't get to five.
MEESE: Sometimes we don't, unfortunately.
LEVIN: What do you think about President Trump and his selection of judges? I think it's been fairly exceptional?
MEESE: I would say that it certainly has been outstanding. President Trump has been very careful, and frankly he's looking in the right places to find those judges for all levels of the court, particularly the Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court. He's looking to the Federalist Society which is committed to Constitutional fidelity. He is looking at the Heritage Foundation. He is looking to other similar sources who believe in what the founders had in mind.
LEVIN: And you can see the urgency of putting people who have fidelity to the Constitution on the court when you see some of the rulings by some of these district judges appointed by the prior President Obama with respect to immigration. Some of these decisions have been truly outrageous, have they not?
MEESE: Absolutely. First of all, the judges at the district court level have gone far beyond what has been traditionally their role, and that is to make decisions for particular cases and certainly decisions that only apply in the area where they have jurisdiction. Instead, these judges are issuing what they call nationwide rulings at the federal district court level, which is really unusual and has not been done that way in the past.
And quite frankly, I think that when judges do that, they ought to be immediately stopped by the next level, the Courts of Appeals and have these issues decided at that level or at the Supreme Court level before they make these very radical changes in what the law is, particularly in the matter of immigration.
Immigration is something that by the Constitution is specifically reserved to Congress and to the executive branch, and Congress in turn has passed laws giving the President considerable say over how their laws passed by Congress are to be interpreted and implemented, and the idea that judges would overrule them and essentially turn what is the statute law on its head is absolutely wrong.
LEVIN: Yes, and I think that, we see other levels of lawlessness when it comes to sanctuary cities and so forth.
Don't forget to join us on LevinTV every week night. You can join us by going to CRTV.com or give us a call at 844-LEVIN-TV, that's 844-LEVIN-TV.
Welcome back. Mr. Attorney General, I want to ask you about criminal justice reform. What is meant by criminal justice reform and there seems to be a movement behind this?
MEESE: Well, there are various aspects of criminal justice reform. Some of which are very good, such as working with people who are leaving prison after serving their sentence and helping them re-engage and re-enter into society in a constructive way where they are not going to continue their criminal activity that got them in prison in the first place.
There is also a lot of misinformation going on. There are people who are trying to get sentences reduced and they talk about mass incarceration. We don't have mass incarceration in this country. That connotes the idea of what Franklin Roosevelt and Earl Warren did back in 1942 when they rounded up Japanese people and put them in camps.
Actually, every criminal in prison, some of them tried very hard to get, there quite frankly by the number of crimes they committed before they were ever convicted. In addition to that, every person has an individual adjudication of their particular case. So, we don't have mass incarceration, we've got to get rid of that term.
And it's also very important that we do not change the sentencing in the way that would get back to where we were in the 50s and 60s where almost no one went to prison, where they tried probation, super probation, super- super probation, anything to keep people out of prison, and what happened, crime increased some 300 percent in the 20-year period, the peak being 1979 and 1980 and drug abuse was rampant.
We had a lot of difficult problems during that period of time because of the leniency, undeserved leniency that was taking place. I think if we're changing sentencing, it ought to be done very carefully and in a very deliberate manner with careful evaluation of what happens.
Now, probably there are some laws that should be changed. That's why we have a sentencing commission at the federal level. That's why states are handling this, but where there's this mass opening of the prison gates such as in California. We've seen very serious increases in crime.
LEVIN: And I've never understood this argument, some of these are petty drug offenses and so forth. We don't know that. A lot of these people have pled. So, they may have committed much more harsher offenses or more offenses, but the prosecutor's office has decided this isn't a priority. We are focusing on other types of cases and so forth?
MEESE: Yes, often there is a plea bargain as they call it and that's why the person has pled to some -- particularly in the drug field -- has pled to possession or possession for sale, when actually they were major dealers selling drugs or otherwise involved in the distribution of drugs.
LEVIN: And not only that, the supposition here is that our entire criminal justice system which is dispersed, I mean you've got local courts, state courts, federal courts, all kinds of courts, judges, grand juries, juries and such, that somehow everybody thinks alike and the goal is to just keep putting people in prison. That's not the way it works, is it?
MEESE: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, when I was in the prosecution business as a deputy district attorney, you worked very carefully often with defense attorneys to work out an appropriate solution, particularly when mental illnesses involve something like that, you try to do what was fair, but also what was just.
LEVIN: All right. We'll be right back.
Welcome back. I'm here with former Attorney General Edwin Meese who was counsel to the President Reagan and Attorney General under President Reagan, I want to ask a question I've asked several of our prior guests here. Where do you see this country in 20 years?
MEESE: Well, Mark, quite frankly, I am somewhat concerned about where we will be in two more decades, particularly if we continue in this free spending, with this increasing of the national debt and where we see increases in the power of the federal government. I think we need strong leadership which would move us back toward the Constitution, back towards what the founders had in mind. That is preserving the liberty of the people, preserving a sound economy and preserving the kind of government, which provides a limited role for the federal government and better government at state and local levels.
I think that's possible, but it is going to take some strong leadership and the kind of leadership that we were privileged to have under Ronald Reagan. We saw all those advantages both in terms of international affairs and in terms of the economy and in terms of what's happening to the people of our country. We need to return, if you will, to Reaganism as a watch word for how the federal government operates, how Congress operates and how the courts operate, particularly being faithful to the Constitution.
LEVIN : Do you think we got a good shot at it?
MEESE: I think we do. I think, you know, we were in pretty tough shape under the Carter administration and what had happened for the previous 20 years before that. I think that -- I have to hope that our country, which has been truly blessed during our two centuries would continue in that direction.
LEVIN: Great pleasure.
MEESE: Thank you.
LEVIN: Thanks for joining us. Ladies and gentlemen, we will see you here next week on "Life, Liberty & Levin." Thank you.
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