Monday, March 19, 2007

Flashback: All About Morrie and What Made Him Tick.

[Memoirs from fifty plus years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

At age 41, with three kids…Tommy, Mary Catherine and Michael and another on the way…I stopped on my next trip to Washington to see the secretary of commerce. He was to be found in the block-long roman-style, pillared building on Constitution avenue, constructed in 1913 which in its entire history had one memorable inhabitant--the only secretary ever to became president, Herbert C. Hoover, who made it his palace. During his tenure, having been a famed engineer and World War I food czar, Hoover saw to it that Commerce was pitched headlong into a race for prestige with Treasury.

But since Hoover, the first New Dealer, a disastrous president (wedded to government interference with markets and, incredibly, tax hikes as an antidote to Depression), Commerce has been a decrepit way-station of obscurity. And still is. It has been a catch-all closet for various unaffiliated agencies: the Patent Office, the Weather Service, the Bureau of Standards, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Census Bureau, the Maritime Administration, an Office of Foreign Direct Investments, the Environmental Science Services Administration (pre-EPA), an Office of State Technical Services (I never figured out what it did), the U. S. Travel Service, five regional development commissions (legacy of JFK’s 1960 campaign proposals) and a Clearing House for Federal Scientific and Technical Information.

And more: at the time I saw him it housed EDA, the free-wheeling multi-billion-dollar Economic Development Administration which JFK had created to help him keep his pledge made in the West Virginia primary to the Appalachians. And within the EDA the once comely Ebony magazine model who was a favorite of the late Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. when he was an assistant secretary—now aging but still attractive, working at her desk. Finally it had an outfit called the Business and Defense Services Administration (BDSA) which is the re-named War Production Board from World War II which was never closed down but recycled—with a $16 million budget with nothing much to do. Finally, it had a genuine aquarium in the basement open to the public because no other government agency wanted it. One reason why this conglomeration existed is that the average Commerce secretary serves fewer than 13 months and is gone before he/she has time to consider reorganization. But of course there is no such thing as abolition of an agency within Commerce. Abolition was unthinkable—until I tried it and Stans vetoed it.

Commerce secretaries since Hoover have fallen into three categories: (a) nobodies, (b) heavy campaign fund-raisers or (c) people who were somebodies but were deposed and on the way down. Nobodies: William Fairfield Whiting, Daniel Roper, Charles Sawyer, Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss (never confirmed). Heavy fund-raisers: Frederick Henry Mueller, Sinclair Weeks, Philip Klutznik, Stans. Once somebodies: Henry Agard Wallace, former ag secretary, former vice president dumped for Harry Truman who had to have something to do after he was dumped ; Harry Hopkins, former all-powerful right-hand man to FDR (deposed when he fell out of favor with FDR and Truman); Luther Hodges, former North Carolina governor who ruined his career in the South coming out for JFK and had to be rewarded; C. R. Smith, former American Airlines president, eased out of the airline in near feeble old age to end his career in public service as LBJ’s appointee; Jesse Jones, all-powerful head of the RFC (Reconstruction Finance Administration) who fought with Vice President Wallace, an FDR favorite, and who was demoted to Commerce.

Now Stans’ aide, the woman we later called “Miss Cringely,” Arden Chambers, swung open a heavy oaken door to a huge, amphitheatre-sized room showing the ex-fund-raiser, never surpassed in the old school of money gathering; a bored business success who yearned so bad he could taste it for fame, recognition, international acclaim. I started toward his desk from the far end of the cavernous room—built by Hoover-- looking ahead as I trod on heavy carpeting, at one who, at a great distance from me. He seemed a smallish, trim, close-cropped grey haired figure sitting quietly a good half city block of walnut-paneling away.

As I neared him, he seemed to take on regular size, a serious man at a huge desk, assuredly the epitome of the accounting priesthood, his hands clasped together, fingers joined upward as if in prayer: an establishmentarian early 20th century businessman with dark blue suit, brocaded tie and a white shirt with the thickness and blinding whiteness of an extra-heavy linen table cloth. Twenty years my senior, he seemed to have been incubated in the rarified air of a 19th century bank board room, who could well be photographed for posterity sitting below a gilt-framed portrait marked, “Our Founder.” I didn’t know it then but he was an oddity, an anachronism, the inculcation of patrician U.S. business of a generation before me which crested in say 1922. He looked like a Central Casting big businessman: imposing in manner with a magnificent way of making one who he regarded as inferior feel that way. But it was a faux manner.

Faux because, as is the case with many aristocratic-looking establishmentarians, he had not been born to the purple at all. He was born in Shakopee, Minnesota in 1908 to a family of Democrats, whose father was a frequently-tipsy Belgian house painter who became a home-made beer brewer and lived in a small house near the railroad tracks. Stans who dropped his Catholic religion under inexplicable circumstances…some said priest kicked his dog when he was a kid (at least the break with the Church was not trivial)…graduated from parochial high school in Shakopee and got the hell out of there as soon as he could.

He went to Chicago in 1925 with $250 in his pocket, got a job as an office-boy and enrolled at Northwestern night school where out of necessity…but also from disinterest… he avoided the liberal arts and concentrated on the studies that would allow him to get a CPA. The non-liberal arts trade school-like education, the ignorance of all but what concerned him with making a living. He revered the establishment, didn’t doubt it for a minute. Other self-made men climbed the ladder but once at the top wanted to change it (my old boss multi-millionaire Minnesota governor Elmer Andersen was an example). Not Stans. Acceptance of the status quo was his trademark. Ideas interested him not a whit; just getting ahead with the ideas that were current at the time. He once told me, “I couldn’t afford to spend my time thinking about political ideas; I simply wanted to get ahead.”

While he worked at a factory that made sausage casings in Chicago (Harry Levi & Co.) he wrote letters to accounting firms; in 1928 he was accepted at Alexander Grant & Co., a small firm and was sent to New York to be a low-paid assistant to the office manager. He continued his accounting-only education at Columbia University, stayed in New York three years during which time he lost his entire meager savings in the 1929 crash (which didn’t make him bitter; more reverential toward the system than before). He got his CPA certificate in 1931, was made a junior partner earning $60 a week; in New York he met and married Kathleen Carmody whose parents had been born in County Cork, Ireland (they could have no children and subsequently adopted four). Two years later, with the economy improving gradually, he was sent back to Chicago to be the Midwest manager of Grant. Then things improved noticeably.

By 1940 he noticed it was disadvantageous to get new business by staying a Democrat so immediately he changed. He cast his first GOP vote for Wendell Willkie. He pursued his association with the Republicans as a prudent salesman. By 1953 Alexander Grant was the ninth largest accounting firm in the nation; Stans was the lead partner and a millionaire. Then, somewhat at the pinnacle of his profession, he felt a need to seek recognition. Speeches to CPA associations were not sufficient; he testified to congressional committees on occasion on items of tax law. Washington, he found exciting. He decided to climb up the ladder with the single-minded dedication he had in business, advocating no change, making use of the contacts he had. But now that he had risen in business, he found travel to Washington exciting.

He had been known in New York and Chicago as a man of tireless ambition. And looking at Washington he felt the same old yearn applied to government. A multi-millionaire, he was still unfulfilled in a quest for power and fame. He wanted to be on the cover of Time, to be watched as he entered a restaurant by people taking in their breaths as he peered from behind their expensive leather menus, saying “that’s Maurice Stans there, isn’t it! Yes, I’m sure that’s Maurice Stans!” He wanted to see Walter Cronkite begin his evening telecast with—“Maurice H. Stans said today…” No CPA earnings of millions could give him that because he was faceless. So as soon as he made his fortune, recognizing what he next sorely wanted, he hightailed out of business. There was no point to having money when there was relative anonymity. He had an itching to serve in government—in order to be recognized and to accumulate the power requisite for glorification.

To get attention and praise and rub shoulders with the powerful, he raised money for the Republicans, groveling in front of Arthur Summerfield, the wealthy Michigan automobile dealer and Republican National Chairman and became very-very good at it. He sought to please Summerfield by raising gobs of dough for Ike. He had so many photos taken with Ike and Summerfield and a long list of GOP dignitaries, he could shuffle them like cards and would frequently change them on his business office walls. By 1955, a multimillionaire at 47, he took the so-so job as deputy Postmaster General in the Eisenhower administration, running the whole department with icy efficiency while his boss, Summerfield, the Postmaster General ran around the country making political speeches. Summerfield drove him nuts with an idea for “rocket mail”—mail propelled across the country by rocket missile. Nutty.

Quick as he could, he used his CPA connections to transfer over to the Budget Bureau as chief deputy to the CPA who had the place, Percival Brundage (former Price-Waterhouse partner). Brundage was despised because he genuinely wanted to cut spending. The Democrats in Congress didn’t like it; Ike did but was busy in foreign affairs to pay much attention. Richard Nixon didn’t like him because Brundage wouldn’t play ball and support some of his pet projects. So Brundage wanted out. Summerfield and the other pols recognized that Stans, though a CPA, would follow orders. So he got the job in 1958. Just think: the last Budget Director who scored big in the media was Charlie Dawes under Harding who got a Nobel Prize for devising a method for conquered Germany to pay its debts and stay solvent.

But Budget for Stans was no bed of roses. Contradictions arose between Ike and Nixon. Knowing he wouldn’t run again, Eisenhower got more conservative on spending. Nixon, ready to run in 1960, got more liberal. So Stans got squeezed between trying to please two bosses, the president he served and the future one he hoped to. Eisenhower’s treasury secretary, Robert Anderson was a deficit hawk not a tax cutter. Andersen wanted tight money and counseled Eisenhower to apply surplus revenue to retiring the deficit not cut taxes. Eisenhower ordered—indeed commanded--a 1958 budget that was restrictive. Nixon wanted a budget that was expansionist so he wouldn’t have to face the Dems with unemployment at 6%. Stans wanted to help Nixon but couldn’t deliver an expansion budget for Nixon without alienating George Humphrey and Ike. He told Nixon this but it seemed to him like Nixon didn’t believe him. Privately, Nixon held it against Ike, Humphrey and Stans when Robert Anderson and the congressional Democrats started rapping the economy as being stagnant. The 1960 campaign was coming up and the unemployment numbers didn’t look good. Stans couldn’t deliver for Nixon.

So if he couldn’t help Nixon one way, he’d do it another. He wanted to quit the Budget Bureau and raise money for Nixon in 1960. He got his old boss, Art Summerfield, to sell Nixon on naming Stans as Nixon’s campaign finance chief. Nixon grumbled, “Art, his damned budget is the main reason why I’m having trouble.” The word got back to Stans. Summerfield said: “Listen, this guy can really raise the dough you need! Listen to me! He can!”

Nixon, cool, never impressed with Stans, said reluctantly o.k. Determined to prove himself, Stans raised an unparalleled amount of money based on a concept that was new to Republicans but which since has become standard. Before Stans, finance chairmen raised what they thought of as big bucks by selling the idea of government thrift. Stans devised twin ideas. One: scaring the bejesus out of businessmen by telling them, with his expertise as a budgeter, how the Democrats would enact new regulations and specialized taxes which would harm them: which he described in such detail as only a budgeter could with ripe illustrations of what a Democratic victory would cost them. Second: knowing the budget as an expert, he could assure them that built-in incentives i.e. subsidies would be preserved by a Nixon administration.

No more the old generalizations of thrift and good government—but a vastly more complicated schema. As a sample, he would divide his prospect lists by industries and show them charts rife with red lines showing how their profits could easily tumble under Democratic spending and taxing plans. It was powerfully effective and Stans became the greatest Republican fund-raiser since the combination financier and strategist Mark Hanna devised a two-tier program of low taxes for industry and the full dinner pail for workers in 1896. Stans’ pitch was similarly two-pronged: the Dems will tax you here-here-here-and-here…showing industry by industry charts…and they will regulate you here-here-here-and-here…showing graphs of what it would cost industry. Then he would guarantee Republicans would not. There was nothing wrong with that. It was excellent salesmanship and he deserved nobly all the credit he received as a top-notch fundraiser. He begged for Nixon’s approbation, for his attention. Not much came.

When Nixon lost in 1960, Stans became a disciple and followed his idol to California where Nixon prepared to run for governor. He became a commercial banker in Los Angeles in order to be near Nixon. It was almost unmanly. Nixon rarely gave Stans the time of day out there but Stans was not ashamed to grovel. He raised a ton of money his Nixon’s failed governorship race in 1962. When the former vice president moved to New York, Stans uprooted his housing and also moved to New York and became an investment banker there (his wife had come to love California and wanted to stay out there). In 1964 he accepted any duty Nixon gave him. Nixon said he should raise money for Goldwater; Stans didn’t care for Goldwater because he wasn’t Nixon—but he obeyed. All the while Nixon traveled the country on the RNC tab, campaigning for Goldwater but actually setting up an organization for himself four years hence.

When Republican National Chairman Ray Bliss rudely told Nixon that he had decided he wouldn’t pick up Nixon’s bills (notwithstanding that the RNC had promised Nixon the bills would be paid), Nixon almost had a stroke thinking he would have to pay for his travels and a staff out of his own pocket. He called Stans and Stans was only too happy to come to the rescue and set up a pot of money Nixon used. He raised another pot of money to float Nixon’s travels in 1966, two years before the presidential election. By 1968, based in New York, he was ready to take up his responsibilities once more as Nixon’s top fund-raiser for the presidential campaign—hoping he had done sufficient penance for the restrictive in 58-59 budget. Again in fund-raising he performed nobly.

When Nixon won the presidency in a squeaker, Stans understandably felt that since he had cinched his all-time record as Republican fund-raiser, he could get whatever job he wanted. Accordingly, he pitched Nixon to be secretary of the treasury. But Nixon, remembering the old Stans of the Budget Bureau, said it wouldn’t look good for a treasury secretary to be from New York (too many New Yorkers including Nixon although he kept maintaining he was a Californian; privately Nixon felt Stans had been too deferential to Ike and Robert Anderson on the budget). Besides, Nixon wanted a business figure of national or international prestige for the job—not his chief fund-raiser, believing that he would be criticized for a crassly partisan appointment. So Nixon chose a nebbish, David Kennedy of Chicago who was head of the Continental Illinois National Bank. Stans gnawed his knuckles, believing his troubles stemmed back in 1958 when he had to go along with a restrictive budget which Nixon, privately, blamed for his defeat.

No Treasury with its national recognition. Instead, Stans got Commerce. What a downer. The lowest level cabinet post of all—for the guy who exceeded all records in raising money for Nixon. But maybe…just maybe…he could turn that Commerce lemon into lemonade. His wife, desperately ill, sighed and said, “oh, Maurie, enjoy life, will you?” It was important to her, having spent the first six months of their marriage in a TB sanitarium (after the cure her lungs continued to carry the lesions of the disease) and throughout she was afflicted with various illnesses: a perforated duodenal ulcer, a hiatal hernia, then cancer of the thyroid and parathyroids treated by a surgery that required her to live on a large quantity of pills to keep her body elements in balance, a spinal deterioration that required her to spend many nights in a chair; cancer of the cervix; abdominal obstructions on several critical occasions resulting from past surgical adhesions, each requiring new surgery and finally a serious blood disease that almost took her life in 1972.

Not him. He would make Commerce a sexy department or die trying. Maybe he could make it zing like it was under Hoover and become a presidential possibility himself. Maybe he could become a world financial figure like Charlie Dawes.


As I walked and walked and walked through the railroad station-sized massive office to the lone seated figure, I passed a lineup of paintings on the wall of industrial scenes from Herbert Hoover’s time that would cheer the frozen heart of any robber baron: lone was of a series of brilliantly-lighted coal-fired factories in Pittsburgh belching black smoke; another showed lines of ecstatic workmen in overalls smiling beatifically as they punched in for work. Another showed a man who looked like he was posing for a 1930s Arrow Shirt ad running an old fashioned calculator at a scrupulously neat desk.

When I got to his desk, we shook hands; he not rising but motioning me brusquely to pull up a heavy oaken chair to the opposite side of the desk—a Stans tactic to ensure deferentiality, as I pulled the chair up under the gaze of the Great Helmsman. When I was seated he said:

“Let me tell you about the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.”

No, I said. I’d prefer to begin by telling you that I’m not here to apply for a job. I already have one with Quaker Oats.

“How’s Bob Stuart?”

Fine. I am here after having talked to Jack Gleason--.

“None of us is here because we want to be—but because of the wish to serve our country.”

Uh-huh. Knowing his background from Minnesota, Chicago and New York, I let that one pass. Knowing all the foregoing, I thought: you’re here because you want to be, Morrie, don’t b. s. the troops). I was ready to mouth some niceties and get out when he startled me with a burst of what sounded to me like vision wrapped up in sweet reason. He stood up, walked around the desk and went over to my chair and motioned toward a conference table. There in his $2,500 (then big bucks) suit with heavy gold cufflinks which he had had ordered for himself from a Manhattan jeweler with the American eagle’s talons clawing a flag of red, white and blue, made the most impressive pitch I ever saw him make—ever…and I saw him orate many times since.

When I left him, I was dead-set to sign up. Was it a mistake? I still debate that one. But now I had to convince my pregnant wife to chuck Quaker Oats, take our three kids and go to Washington with me. There was no such thing as a leave for federal service. I would have to technically sever all contact with Quaker.

What the hell did Stans say that changed me around? Next time.

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