Edwin Meese is one of the very few top administration officials who is willing regularly to undergo press questioning on a wide range of sensitive subjects.
Another way of putting it is that the President's trusted friend and advisor, Mr. Meese, is one of the very few officials that Mr. Reagan is willing to turn over to the press for an on-the-record response at moments when the United States is treading carefully.
During a post-breakfast chat, as the President's counselor was driven back to the White House, he said he had had a 11 p.m. briefing the night before, on his arrival back from New York, to see to it that he was abreast of the administration policy - particularly on the Mideast.
He said he ''wanted to make sure'' that he ''didn't say anything misleading on decisions that we have not yet made.'' The President's positions, and how those positions would be expressed, had been carefully determined, he added. And his task was to be precise in reflecting the presidential stand.
''On top of that I talked to some officials in the White House early this morning,'' Meese added, telling how he had prepared for the breakfast meeting with nearly 40 reporters. ''Also,'' he said, ''I, of course, keep up on such matters on a day-to-day basis.''
Thus, Meese indicated he was all primed then when he was hit with a barrage of questions on US relations with Israel, the massacre of Palestinians, the dispatch of US marines to Lebanon, and so on.
Is it true that the administration would welcome the early exodus of Mr. Begin?
We make a practice of not commenting on the internal matters of Israel.
Would you describe our relationship with the Begin government today?
There's no question that events last week have created some difficulties that we hope will be resolved. One way would be by Israel responding rapidly to the President's request that Israeli forces withdraw from Beirut, and there be prompt withdrawal of all forces from the entire Lebanon area.
Any plans to cut off or reduce economic or military aid?
We don't plan or contemplate either at present.
Will the US marines be in close juxtaposition with Israeli forces?
The details are being worked out with other countries providing units of multinational forces and with Israel. The basic concept is that Israeli forces already will have withdrawn, with the Lebanese army coming in behind them. And we'll be there as a presence, supporting the Lebanon army, but not as a police force.
Is it true that despite those provocations from Israel, the United States' relationship with that government is pretty much business as usual?
That's a loaded question. We have a continuing relationship. We're trying to work out the present difficulties, including withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.
Is the White House hardened to the idea that the marines will be in more danger?
There is some danger present, otherwise we wouldn't be sending in the marines. But we're taking every possible measure to maximize the security of our forces and preclude hostilities.
How long will the marines be there?
It is not good to say that they will be there two, three, or four weeks. We need better information before we can make an estimate . . . . But we don't see it as a longterm, indefinite period. It will be just until the Lebanon army is able to assume control of the area.
What's our position on an inquiry into the massacre of the Palestinians?
We're making our own assessment of the facts. The State Department is looking at the situation and making an assessment that would be the basis for our ongoing relationship with Israel - as part of our overall assessment.
Has Reagan been in direct contact with Begin in recent days?
Not in the last few days. There are messages, of course, going back and forth from the State Department. But the last time Reagan called Begin was about three weeks ago when he asked him to stop the bombing in Beirut.
Is there a more profound change taking place in the administration's attitude toward Israel since the massacre?
It is hard to quantify. We're obviously extremely concerned about it and we want to make sure that this sort of situation does not happen again. We certainly condemn the people that committed these acts.
Why is our inquiry at the normal State Department level? Why is there no intention to make an extensive inquiry at the scene? Why not a full-scale inquiry by the United States?
The investigation is the responsibility of the government that has reason to do so from the legal standpoint. Israel is making its own determination - so there is no need for the United States to make one.
Is it still possible for the Israelis and Arabs to sit down and negotiate?
Yes. We have to remove Lebanon first as an impediment. The chances obviously were increased by the President's Sept. 1 statement and the favorable Arab response that followed.
Is there any thought that Israel sought this situation to disrupt Reagan's peace plan?
I personally don't think these events were part of a calculated Israeli attempt to disrupt the peace plan. There have been some disagreements; but the present crisis is what a lawyer would call a ''supervening event.''