Friday, March 23, 2007

Flashback: Getting Organized at Commerce Begins with a Prestige Office Suite…as Walter Hamilton Assured Us.

[Memoirs of more than fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

In the few weeks after I submitted my notice of resignation at Quaker, I spent as much time as I could in Washington, interviewing people for my new agency, the Office of Minority Business Enterprise. The first choice I made was for deputy director and I chose an experienced hand at both minority enterprise and as a former veteran of Commerce. He was an African American with an interesting name, Abraham S. Venable. I chose him from a long list of otherwise qualified applicants for three reasons: First, he had worked at Commerce before and had been viewed in the mid-1960s as its resident expert on black business—so he had the bureaucratic experience that could enable us to avoid pitfalls; second, he impressed me not only well-versed in black politics and nuances but, just a year younger than I (40) he was an inveterate and gregarious joiner in black community activities in Washington which was his home-town.

Third, he had the intellectual equipment: an MBA from Howard, post-graduate study in economics at Princeton; fourth while he was oracular, he was not of the familiar black evangelical preacher variety but his persuasiveness was of an economic caliber; fifth, while a Democrat as 99% of blacks are, he saw as I did the opening for Republicans to capitalize in the growth of minority enterprise. Of all the people I interviewed, I felt he was most capable to match my short-comings with positives. I am not a minority; I was and am not either an economist nor did I have a track record in entrepreneurship; I am less knowledgeable about business than political action: I’m as Stans described, a communicator and advocate-lobbyist. Of all my shortcomings, I felt the worst was that I was totally unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the Commerce bureaucracy where I would have to survive. My prior experience had come from the Hill. I was unfamiliar with the personnel of various federal agencies whose efforts I was supposed to coordinate. Venable supposedly had that quality since as a pioneer for minority enterprise he had doggedly worked at a low level at Commerce for many years.

But if I expected Venable to know the ins and outs of the treacherous bureaucratic, shark-infested waters of the federal government, not to mention Commerce’s, I was wrong. Venable had served some ten years at Commerce, talked a great game but when the chips were down was as green as I—something I learned the hard way. From the day he came on board, Venable talked about how valuable an old Commerce hand would be to us. His name was Walter Hamilton, a political holdover from the LBJ era who was fighting to stay on. I met with Hamilton to whom I took an instant dislike. A puffed-up-with-his-own-importance white, he was determined to survive in a Republican administration and he had already made a conquest—getting on the right side of Stans’ undersecretary, a California lawyer, an assistant Labor secretary from the Eisenhower administration, with the deliciously Italian name of Rocco Siciliano. To ease his acceptance with the Republicans, Hamilton (who was what was known as a “schedule C,” a political appointee who could be replaced at whim) because a wily, soft-spoken, purring pseudo Republican, much like the French Nazis who became overnight proclaimed “resistance fighters” when the Americans liberated Paris, excitedly demonstrating how much they hated the Nazis during the occupation.

The more Hamilton purred to me as to how glad he was that we Republicans had liberated the government from the Democrats whom he had served, the more disgusted I was with him. Not so Venable who said he remembered him from the old days when Venable was a non-political bureaucrat. Hamilton, Venable said, would lead us through some dangerous shoals and save us much grief. All the while he was ingratiating himself with us, Hamilton was working behind the scenes to dislodge us in the hope that he could be elevated to head the new agency I had not yet even taken command of. I was not even sworn in; I was flying between Washington and Chicago, tying up details with my job at Quaker and preparing to take this one.

Venable was flying between Washington and his teaching assignment at Princeton and had not been certified yet as my assistant. It turned out Venable may have had time and experience at Commerce but he was not the seasoned old political hand he represented. He was a good guy but naïve and he had been taken in by Walter Hamilton. We were two babes in the woods, me depending unwisely on Venable and Venable depending with gross un-wisdom on the duplicitous advice given by Hamilton who was out to gut the both of us.

One day I got to my office in Chicago and had a call from Venable at Princeton. He said, “we have to do something right away—and that is to designate a suite of offices for our staff in the Commerce building.” My first thought was to call Stans but he was in Japan on a trade trip. Siciliano was testifying on the Hill. “No matter,” said Venable. “You know what? Walter Hamilton has the chart of offices since he’s an wise bureaucrat and he wants to talk to you.” No sooner had Venable hung up than I got a call from Hamilton at Commerce.

“I’ve talked to Abe,” Hamilton purred. “Incidentally, you made a brilliant choice in selecting him as your deputy. I know Abe very well having worked with him during his last stint at Commerce and I can tell you he brings not just diversity but sagacity and--.”

I said: Walter, what can I do for you?

“Trust me, Tom. I’ve been in Commerce since the days of Luther Hodges who should never have been appointed by Johnson; I saw his people make mistakes here. Then there came John Connor, a real imbecile. Followed by Sandy Trowbridge who was terribly innocent to bureaucratic wiles. Finally there was C. R. Smith who was senile. We Commerce professionals are so lucky to have Maurice Stans, Rocco Siciliano and, if I may say so, you!”

What’s your advice about office location, Walter?

“Well, the first thing you must do—and I know Stans would echo this if he were here today—is to be sure that your office suite has prominence. It is very important when you’re starting a new agency as you are not to allow yourself to be shunted aside upstairs somewhere near the—ugh!—Patent Office or—ugh!—Weather Bureau. You are the living embodiment of President Nixon’s urban dream and as such you must have a prominence that tells people right off how seriously the president and Secretary Stans regard this effort of great promise to all minorities.”

Ugh is right, I thought. I can’t stand this patronizing guy.

What is your advice, Walter?

“My advice is this and, trust me, I’ve seen new secretaries come and go ever since--.”

Ever since Luther Hodges, I know. What is the advice?

“With the secretary gone overseas and Rocco serving as acting secretary and having to testify for three days straight on the Hill, it is paramount that you arrange for a suite of offices before another agency gets it. I am particularly thinking of a meaningless agency like the U. S. Travel Service. They have their eyes on a particularly juicy span of real estate that I think you should get—and so I’ve taken the liberty of taking first dibs on it in your name, you not being around and all. So I signed your names—Roeser and Venable. I hope you understand that I had to do this since this choice real estate was going quick.”

Well, if you say so Walter. What does Abe say?

“Abe will call you again in a few minutes. He cheered me on. He knows the lay of the land around Commerce like I do and he’s very grateful I did this.”

Where is this, er, juice real estate?

“It is the handsomest suite you’ve ever seen, right next to the Secretary’s office on the fifth floor. Wood paneled, a library already furnished. American flag. A great desk that you’ll love, Tom. And the adjoining rooms are terrific, too. Next to your office is Abe. Next to his office is a string of them—right down the hall from Stans. What could be better? People will know immediately that the Office of Minority Business Enterprise is front and center in Commerce priorities. Oh, I tell you, I really aced out that U. S. Travel Service. They were really pissed but I signed your name with a flourish and said to them, `You don’t understand, fellows. The Office of Minority Business Enterprise is President Nixon’s baby and Secretary Stans’ baby and it belongs here. You wanna fight about it, fight about it, but I’ve got orders from Mr. Roeser to sign up and I’ve just done it, beat you to the punch! I didn’t want to gloat but I had to!”

Well, I guess we ought to thank you, Walter.

“No, don’t thank me. This is what you have to do. Send a telegram to Stans and tell him that you reserved office suites 114-B, C, D, E, F, and G and that you delegated me to reserve it—so they don’t think I’m transgressing. Send the wire today and copy Rocco. That way the next time you come to Washington, you can lay claim to the greatest suite in Commerce excepting the secretary’s own, of course. Now take down the details as I give them to you and send the telegram right now.”

As soon as he hung up, Venable was on the line.

“Listen, buddy,” he said. “Trust this old Commerce hand. It’s vitally important that we get some prominence and I know that suite of offices Walter’s talking about. Walter wants you to send a wire to Stans reserving 114-B, C, D, E, F and G. Only you can send the wire. Do it right now and we’ll be off on the right foot as Walter says.”



Do you trust Walter?

“Trust him? With my life! Why?”

Why does he want to help us so much?

“Simple. He’s a Democratic schedule C and is slated to leave. He wants to stay! He’s helping us so that when they get around to firing him, he’ll have us as friends who will urge Stans to keep him.”

You’re sure this solicitousness is on the level?

“Of course! What the hell, are you getting paranoid now? We haven’t even been sworn in and you’re distrusting people!”

I distrust him.

“Well, I can vouch for him. Send the wire now or we’ll be upstairs near the Patent Office and out of the range of vision. Do that as a favor for both of us, okay?

Very well, but--.

“You’ll never, ever regret it.”

I sent the wire. What happened after that? Next time.

1 comment:

  1. Tom-

    I hope you are not being driven like a Moth to a Plame-- (that's a joke, son-)