William French Smith

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William Smith
File:William French Smith.jpg
74th United States Attorney General
In office
January 23, 1981 – February 25, 1985
President Ronald Reagan
Preceded by Benjamin Civiletti
Succeeded by Edwin Meese
Personal details
Born William French Smith
(1917-08-26)August 26, 1917
Wilton, New Hampshire, U.S.
Died October 29, 1990(1990-10-29) (aged 73)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Jean Webb
Children William French
Scott Cameron
Gregory Hale
Alma mater University of California, Los Angeles (B.A.)
Harvard Law School (J.D.)
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Navy
Years of service 1942–1946
Rank US-O3 insignia.svg Lieutenant
Unit United States Navy Reserve

William French Smith (August 26, 1917 – October 29, 1990) was an American lawyer. He was the 74th United States Attorney General.


Smith was born in Wilton, New Hampshire on August 26, 1917, and raised in Boston. He received his B.A. degree in economics, summa cum laude, from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1939, and his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1942. Smith was a direct descendant of Urian Oakes, the fourth president of Harvard College. His father, who died when Smith was 6, was president of the Mexican Telephone and Telegraph Co., whose headquarters were in Boston.

From 1942 to 1946, Smith served in the United States Naval Reserve, reaching the rank of lieutenant. In 1946 he joined the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles, one of the largest in the area. He eventually, became a senior partner and a top administrator of the firm, which at one time had 250 lawyers. He met Mr.Ronald Reagan before the 1966 campaign for governor, eventually becoming a member of the influential circle of advisers who formed the new Governor's, "kitchen cabinet". In 1968, Governor Reagan appointed him to the University of California Board of Regents. He later served three terms as chairman. Then eventually on December 11th, in 1980, he was nominated as the 74th Attorney General by the then elected, President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. He assumed his post at the United States Department of Justice, on January 23rd in 1981, serving until February 25, 1985. He pursued a strong anticrime initiative, increasing the resources used to fight the distribution and sale of illegal narcotics by 100 percent. Furthermore, he successfully lobbied for the establishment of a commission to create new federal sentencing guidelines. Major contributions were: supported Reagan's welfare reform program, recommended a comprehensive crime package, of more than 150 administrative and legislative initiatives, which included a federal death penalty, the denial of bail for certain types of crimes, the modification of the rule barring the use of illegally seized evidence in criminal trials, mandatory prison sentences for crimes involving the use of guns, and the use of private Internal Revenue Service information in combating organized crime; designed an immigration and refugee policy , announced a more lenient attitude towards corporate mergers in order to make government more responsive to the concerns of business, opposed anti competitive practices, modified the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, amongst many others. Notable are immigration bill and the crime bill of 1984. He also was the one who got the FBI into drug enforcement. The wealthy, white-haired Smith concentrated on getting more money for his department, beefing up federal efforts against drug trafficking and pursuing a policy with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to bring the nation's borders under control. President Ronald Reagan in his remarks Announcing Federal Initiatives Against Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime, October 14, 1982, said;

"A few months ago Attorney General William French Smith and his staff, in collaboration with the Treasury Department, put together final plans for a national strategy to expose, prosecute, and ultimately cripple organized crime in America. And I want to announce this program today. It is one that outlines a national strategy that I believe will bring us very close to removing a stain from American history that has lasted nearly a hundred years."

"I will ask that the Attorney General be required to submit a yearly report to the people, through the President and the Congress, on the status of the fight against organized crime and organized criminal groups dealing in drugs. This requirement, although simple and inexpensive, will establish a formal mechanism through which the Justice Department will take a yearly inventory of its efforts in this area and report to the American people on its progress."

"The American people want the mob and its associates brought to justice and their power broken—not out of a sense of vengeance, but out of a sense of justice; not just from an obligation to punish the guilty but from an even stronger obligation to protect the innocent; not simply for the sake of legalities but for the sake of the law that is the protection of liberty."[1]

Smith was a member of the American Law Institute, American Judicature Society, and the Institute of Judicial Administration's Board of Fellows, as well as a fellow of the American Bar Foundation. He served as Attorney General from 1981 to 1985 and then joined the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. In the conservative tide that swept over Washington in the early days of Mr. Reagan's term, the Justice Department reversed its position on major civil rights questions, re-interpreted antitrust law, called on the Supreme Court to reassess landmark rulings on abortion and sought to enforce a system of secrecy oaths and censorship for Government officials with access to intelligence data.[2]

Mr. Smith also was credited with playing a major role in Mr. Reagan's nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor, to be the first woman on the United States Supreme Court. Prior to O'Connor's appointment to the Court, she was an elected official and judge in Arizona serving as the first female Majority Leader in the United States as the Republican leader in the Arizona Senate. President Ronald Reagan, formally nominated O'Connor on August 19, 1981. On September 21, in 1981, O'Connor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a decision of 99–0.[3] Liberal judicial analyst Steven Brill, gave Smith credit for gaining control of the Justice Department mega-bureaucracy and for cleaning up the corruption-plagued Drug Enforcement Administration. Smith established a judicial-selection system that appears to have produced conservative but qualified federal judges.

He served as the member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on International, Educational and Cultural Affairs in Washington, D.C. from 1971 to 1978; a member of the board of directors of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council since 1970 and its president since 1975; a member of the Los Angeles Committee on Foreign Relations from 1954 to 1974; and a member of the Harvard University's School of Government since 1971.

He also served as a member of the advisory board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, since 1978 and was a member of the Stanton Panel on International Information, Education and Cultural Relations in Washington from 1974 until 1975.

His business affiliations included service as a director of the Pacific Lighting Corp. of Los Angeles from 1967 to 1981 and the Pacific Lighting Corp. of San Francisco from 1969 to 1981, a seat on the board of directors of Jorgensen Steel Company from 1974 to 1981, and a seat on the board of directors of Pullman, Inc. of Chicago from 1979 to 1980.

He was the member of a California delegation to the Republican National Convention in 1968, 1972, and 1976, he was serving as the chairman of the delegation in 1968 and the vice chairman of the delegation in 1972 and 1976.

He served as the Attorney General under President Reagan's cabinet from 1981 until 1985. During his tenure, The United States and Italy agreed on a common strategy to fight organized crime and narcotics trafficking, and the two governments announced this in a joint statement in Rome at the end of a three-day visit by U.S. Atty. Gen. William French Smith. Specifically, the two nations decided to strengthen cooperation to combat drug traffic in the Mediterranean basin and to stem the flow of drugs from South America. They also agreed on common measures to control chemicals used in the illicit production of narcotics.[4]

After leaving office, Smith rejoined the powerful law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles. He also served on the boards of major corporations and was named chairman of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation. Bill was instrumental in locating the present site for the Reagan Presidential Library. Bill Smith is remembered as a quiet, yet effective statesman. In the words of National Review, "Smith seldom spoke, but when he did, he was always worth hearing. No one had an ill word to say about him, so great was his decency - the quality he had most in common, perhaps, with the man he served so long."[5]

Tower Commission

The Tower Commission was commissioned on 26 November 1986 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in response to the Iran Contra scandal. Reagan appointed Republican and former Senator John Tower of Texas, former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. The Tower Commission conducted an inquiry after disclosures that the United States had secretly sold arms to Iran and diverted proceeds to rebels seeking to overthrow Nicaragua's government. Richard K. Willard said that Smith was not a full member of the Cabinet group, sometimes the National Security Council and other times the wider National Security Planning Group, that considered sensitive foreign policy and intelligence matters, including covert operation proposals, "but was only 'invited' to attend." Smith's successor, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese, did become a member of the group, but "even then some effort was made to insist that he was a member in his personal capacity and not as attorney general," Willard said. The remarks by Willard, who later became assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's civil division, lend detailed support for the conclusion of the presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower, (R-Tex.) that the Administration's process for making national security decisions was seriously flawed, particularly where crucial legal questions should have been addressed. Because of Smith's "uncertain status" in the intelligence process, his Justice Department subordinates "were generally excluded from working groups and sub-Cabinet level deliberations," said Willard, who left the Justice Department in February for private practice.[6] " Smith regularly complained about these systemic shortcomings in a series of letters to the White House staff and principal members of the NSC in 1981-82," Willard said, adding that he "was fairly forceful on these points in meetings as well," but without "much success." Willard linked the problem to a widespread fear of leaks, which fed efforts to restrict participation in the national security decision-making process. "Many in the intelligence community blamed the Department of Justice for failing to vigorously investigate and prosecute leak cases," Willard said. "This perceived failure was a continuing irritant that hampered my efforts to improve the working relationship between the department and the intelligence community."[7]


Smith died in Los Angeles, California on Monday, October 29, 1990, at the age of 73, from cancer, at the Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Center at County-USC Medical Center, where he had been admitted on Oct. 2, 1990.

As attorney general, Smith "brought talent, wisdom and the highest integrity to the Department of Justice," Ronald Reagan said on Monday. "Our nation was indeed fortunate to have a person of his excellence and patriotism in the cabinet. And we were made better as a country because of Bill's work. More than a colleague, Bill was a valued and trusted friend and adviser. I often sought his wise counsel throughout my years in public life, and I was fortunate to have him at my side."[8]

He was interred on Thursday, November 1, 1990 at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. A one-hour memorial funeral service, attended by 250 people was held on Friday, November 2, 1990 at 11 a.m. at the Community Church of San Marino which was eulogized by Ronald Reagan and others. Bill ... believed firmly in limited government and keeping government as close to the people as possible, said United States Solicitor General, Kenneth W. Starr in his eulogy. Ken Starr, who served under Smith in Washington, described Smith's interests in the far reaches of the Department of Justice, including his visits to Cambodian refugee camps in eastern Thailand and anti-drug efforts in Pakistan, Peru and Bolivia. A eulogy also was delivered by Charles Z. Wick, former director of the United States Information Agency.[9]

Smith had three sons and one daughter with his first wife, Marion. His second wife, Jean Webb Vaughan Smith, (born in Los Angeles on Aug. 5), 1918, who championed volunteerism as national president of the Association of Junior Leagues, died Jan. 25, 2012 in Los Angeles. She was 93. Mrs. Smith joined the Junior League in the 1950s, rising to president of the Los Angeles chapter in 1954 and western regional director in 1956. She served as national president from 1958 to 1960. Her decades of public service also included government appointments and civic roles, including serving on the boards of the United Way, the American Red Cross, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A seasoned Washington wife, she was close to two Republican administrations. Her first husband, whom she married in 1942, George William Vaughan, initially an auto dealer, became the assistant secretary of defense under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and died in 1963. She met her second husband, William French Smith, at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel where she worked briefly in the public affairs office and they got married on November 6th in 1964. Smith became Ronald Reagan’s personal lawyer, confidant, business adviser and, in 1981, attorney general. Mrs. Smith served on the President’s Advisory Commission on White House Fellowships.[10]


Possible Perot running mate

In 1992, independent presidential candidate Ross Perot considered naming Smith, "who'd been dead for a couple of years," as his vice presidential running mate, according to Perot's campaign manager Ed Rollins.[12]


  1. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=43127
  2. Lyons, Richard D. (October 30, 1990). "William French Smith Dies at 73; Reagan's First Attorney General". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "O'Connor, Sandra Day". Federal Judicial Center. Retrieved March 21, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "The World : U.S., Italy Unite on Drugs". Los Angeles Times. January 18, 1985.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. http://law.pepperdine.edu/events/william-french-smith-lectures/
  6. "Drug-Testing Official to Leave Justice Dept". Los Angeles Times. February 3, 1988.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Ostrow, Ronald J. (May 13, 1988). "Ex-Atty. Gen. Smith Covert Policy Input Held Restricted". Los Angeles Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Boyer, Edward J. (October 30, 1990). "William French Smith, 73, Dies; Reagan Adviser and Atty. Gen". Los Angeles Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1990/Reagan-Eulogizes-Former-U-S-Attorney-General-William-French-Smith/id-d0b6baf54d12b5f34a37f248027184e2
  10. Woo, Elaine (2012-01-27). "Jean Webb Vaughan Smith, widow of Reagan's attorney general, dies at 93". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-12-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. http://www.nndb.com/people/746/000054584/
  12. Singleton, Don (1996-08-18) An Insider Speaks Out, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Further reading

  • Smith, William French, Law and Justice in the Reagan Administration: The Memoirs of an Attorney General, 1991. ISBN 0-8179-9172-7
  • 3-15-1984:Some Observations on the Establishment Clause: William French Smith [1]

External links

Legal offices
Preceded by
Benjamin Civiletti
United States Attorney General
Succeeded by
Edwin Meese