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Rex Lee's legacy as a problem solver is lost on his son

Published October 6, 2013 3:48 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The smirking arrogance of Sen. Mike Lee, his self-righteous and destructive mission to stop Obamacare at all costs, and the Kukla, Fran and Ollie show he has developed with the equally buffoonish Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has got to be puzzling to those who knew his father.

It's hard to imagine that the gallant, accomplished, compassionate public servant, Rex Lee, produced this demagogue.

Rex Lee developed a reputation as a problem solver with a keen legal mind during his four years as solicitor general under former President Ronald Reagan. Before that he had been an assistant attorney general in the Gerald Ford administration.

What set him apart as solicitor general was his sense of reason and his grasp of good governing principles wrapped up in his legal positions defending the policy positions of his boss and the administration he served.

As solicitor general, Rex Lee won 23 of the 30 cases he argued during Reagan's first term.

He also was a valued advisor to the president and was viewed as a voice of reason in the conservative president's administration.

It's interesting to see the finger pointing between Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for the government's dysfunction that Mike Lee seems to relish while he stirs the partisan pot.

Rex Lee had an influential seat in the Reagan roundtable when the nation's 40th president earned the reputation of getting things done by understanding how to work with a Democratic Congress.

While Mike Lee preaches a one-size-fits-all view of complex constitutional questions and dismisses anyone who has a differing analysis, Rex Lee was accommodating to all points of view. He had his principles and strong opinions, but he was respectful of others.

Once when I was writing a story for The Tribune about a legal fight before the U.S. Supreme Court that affected Utah, I tried to get hold of the solicitor general but was told he was in Europe at a conference.

Later that evening, Rex Lee called me back. It was well after midnight where he was, but he wanted to make sure I got the information from him that I sought.

"Before I answer your question," he said to me, "you have to do one thing for me."

Weary of what was coming next, I inquired, "What is that?"

"You have to tell me who won the BYU game," he said with a lilt to his voice.

That was the first of several encounters I had with Rex Lee, who always was friendly and disarmingly charming.

Before he was Reagan's solicitor general, he was the first dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University and was credited with recruiting a talented staff of law professors.

Later, he became president of BYU and was one of the most open and accessible university presidents I ever dealt with as a reporter.

He brought professor Michael Goldsmith to the law school in what could have seemed like the landing of an alien in New Mexico.

Goldsmith, a brilliant attorney and prosecutor who was part of a New York organized crime task force, was an eastern Jewish guy who fit all those stereotypes. He had long curly hair and spoke in the type of colorful language that BYU students are not supposed to hear.

But Rex Lee valued his talent and his personality, and, as Goldsmith told me before he died, "Rex always had my back."

Goldsmith, who liked to tell his students that a good defense attorney could get a sodomy charge reduced to following too closely, was voted professor of the year six times.

A lifelong Republican and devoted conservative, he once invited former Democratic Party State Chairman Pat Shea to the law school for a friendly debate on the merits of term limits. Shea was for it, Lee against it.

The experience was rich for the students, for observers like me and for Shea.

"Rex was a superb jurist who could bring clarity to convoluted and complicated legal problems." Shea told me. "And he had the diplomatic skills to bring complex issues to a productive conclusion."

Unlike his son. —