Monday, March 26, 2007

Flashback: Huh? The Commerce Suite We Reserved was the Herbert Hoover Memorial Library? And Walter Hamilton’s Sad Political Demise.

[Fifty years of political memories for my kids and grandchildren].

When next I went to Washington, I inspected the suite of offices that Walter Hamilton had reserved in my name for the Office of Minority Business Enterprise. They were indeed spacious and well-appointed, with huge windows looking out onto the Mall with the Washington monument looming in the distance. The wood looked like teakwood, with a finely perfected workmanship identical to the John Adams rooms in the U. S. Department of State. Just as Walter Hamilton had said, the offices of the secretary were next door and the under-secretary down the hall. Bookcases were filled with classics of literature, some Chinese and engineering tomes. Just the place for the new agency dedicated to minority enterprise to be located—very prominent as visitors came in from the street.

I was walking around the suite that was to be my own office when I was interrupted by a man who introduced himself as my new budgetary and personnel aide, a liaison to the permanent bureaucracy and who became one of my closest friends. A youngish man of military bearing and correct civil service mien, he was not unlike “Radar” in M.A.S.H. except a great deal handsomer, with ruddy cheeks and an athletic bearing, often swinging an imaginary golf club. Each agency at Commerce was given a consummate bureaucrat to expedite its wishes and to deal with the permanent Commerce civil service hierarchy. This was a young man with an ironic sense of humor, David Koch (pronounced “Cook”).

“Uh, you are inspecting your office suite, sir?” he said.

Yes. I love it.

“So does Secretary Stans, sir.”

That has an ominous ring to it.

“The secretary loves it because this suite of offices is a memorial to Herbert Hoover whom you must know was the greatest commerce secretary.” He practiced tee’ing off, his arms swinging up with correct looseness.

A memorial to Hoover? That I didn’t know.

“I imagine not, sir. You couldn’t be expected to. These were Mr. Hoover’s offices. When he was elected president, his successors ordained that these be set aside as a kind of library. It has remained such ever since. Until last week when you reserved this for yourself. As anyone who has been associated with this 5th floor and policy for any time at all can tell you, these offices are top-shelf and are for the study and reflection of the secretary and the under-secretary. Anyone…or I may extend that to everyone…who ever worked a day in Commerce knows this. Including, if I may say so, sir, the man who reserved the suite in your name, Mr. Walter Hamilton.”

I see. Now since Mr. Venable worked in Commerce for a long time, he knew it as well?

“That is a difficult question that requires a variegated answer.” He lowered his head and looked from his imaginary club to the imaginary cup and tapped the make-believe ball gently.


“Mr. Venable has many strengths as all of us know at Commerce. But as a black man involved in pioneering minority enterprise which historically has been on a very low priority here, he worked in the bowels of this place in a very-very low level job. He was stuck away on the 10th floor. He never came by here. No, sir, I wouldn’t fault him. But he was filled in on this suite of offices by Mr.Hamilton. He has had up to now the highest regard for Mr. Hamilton. I expect that has changed, sir.”

I hope so. I had the original impression that Mr. Hamilton is a 14 carat phony.

“I wouldn’t say that, no sir.”


“A 16-carat. May I just say sir he is seeking to remain on board with the new Republican administration because of his new-found loyalty to Republican principles.”

Yes. And I am just about to challenge those principles.

“It would not be proper to get into a dispute with him sir. That is not the Commerce way. We operate with gentlemanliness and dignity if I may say so, sir.”

Let’s see if, even though I’m not sworn in, I can distinguish the Commerce way.

“Yes sir. Try me.”

I am thinking about leaving these quarters and take a cab to the White House where I will drop in on Personnel and visit with the man who is in charge of seeing that all Schedule Cs [politically filled positions] have the requisite loyalty to the administration.

“Very good sir. You are a fast learner of the Commerce way. You have the name of his personnel man, I expect.”

No, I will find out when I get there.

“Let me refresh you, sir. His name is Harry Flemming.”

Harry Flemming! I think I know him. He is the son of a former HEW secretary under Eisenhower is he not?

“Yes sir. Arthur Flemming. Harry Flemming, according to rumor—and as a civil servant I am not privy to the ways of politics but only civil service comings and goings…but according to rumor, Harry Flemming might be delighted to see you because he has a difficult assignment, to free-up more Schedule Cs for Republican appointment—and he has relatively few Schedule Cs due to the congress. Mr. Hamilton is a Schedule C under past Democratic appointment. Mr. Flemming would undoubtedly be gratified to free up any Schedule Cs you might suggest, sir.”

Very well. I’m leaving right now. You might tell Mr. Venable when he comes in that I want to see him.

“He came in this morning sir and is working at a make-shift office on the 10th floor way out of sight from you and everyone else, sir. He is aware that you are in the building, sir.”

He is? And I take it he is shying away because he also invited me to send a telegram to the secretary reserving this suite?

“Yes. He is let me say very disturbed when he found out from me that this suite has been traditionally held open in memory of Mr. Hoover. He has both been eager to see you and dreading it at the same time, sir.”

Someone who has to be outraged with me must be the secretary who has returned from Japan.

“Disturbed? No sir.”

Why not? He must have seen my stupid telegram reserving the Herbert Hoover library for my own office and that of my staff.

“As a matter of fact he has not, sir.” The smooth golf swing again.


“Commerce procedure mandates that before a swearing in of any policy personnel, all correspondence including telegrams and letters sent to the secretary from that person impacting on official duties goes to the administrator of the particular office—that to provide for certain legal safeguards in the writing of correspondence. It is section 459-b in our manual. It has been our policy since the era of C. R. Smith who was a very efficient secretary. You see—before C. R. Smith came here, occasionally—not often—a man named to a high post would be careless about his correspondence to the secretary until he was properly tutored about maintaining a distance between politics and Commerce, which never intersect in this building, sir.”

Really? Another golf swing.

“Yes. In Mr. Hodges time—he served under President Kennedy—a man was named n assistant secretary and before he was sworn in he wrote a letter to the secretary thanking him for the appointment and promising to continue raising money for the Democratic party in gratitude as per his earlier conversation with Secretary Hodges. The letter was leaked by unfriendly sources and caused a great deal of havoc on the Hill. Mr. Hodges was gravely embarrassed. So C. R. Smith, a wise gentleman who succeeded Mr. Hodges, ordered that all correspondence from prospective appointees to the secretary or under-secretary be sent to the appropriate civil service administrator to be vetted. Thus--.”

Thus my telegram never did reach Secretary Stans and Secretary Siciliano?

“No sir. It went to me and, let us say, aware that your wire came from a suggestion by Mr. Hamilton, I took care of it.”

When Mr. Hamilton asked me to send the wire he didn’t know the rules—that you would ultimately get it?

“No. Not in the slightest. He thought quite logically that the wire would go to both the secretary and under-secretary and get you torpedoed, sir. As per the rules it went to me. He does not know this because it is not my province to tell him. I work for you, sir.”

Does Mr. Venable know this?

“No, sir. I thought it best to let him sweat it out for a while because of his rather imprudent trust of Mr. Hamilton…until you talk to Mr. Venable. I thought that with all due respect you might want to enlighten Mr. Venable about Mr. Hamilton, sir. Possibly you might want to advise him not to trust Mr. Hamilton any more than you do, sir.” Once more a putt. Looking carefully, measuring in his mind the distance from club to cup.

I will. You don’t suppose--.

“Suppose that in the meantime Mr. Venable will go to Secretary Stans and apologize for your sending the wire and taking all the blame himself as well as giving it to Mr. Hamilton?”


“No, in a conversation with him I suggested that this would be imprudent, sir. But I would suggest you see him and disabuse him of any need to visit at all with the secretary or under-secretary.”

I shall. You may be interested to know that when he talked to me, Mr. Venable said that if I sent a wire to the secretary I would never, ever, regret it.

“Yes sir. If I may say so, sir--.”


“I don’t know how to say this in Commerce terminology, sir.”

Then say it in regular English.

“The betting at Commerce—among the bureaucrats—is that you’ll be out of here in about six months. That’s not how I see it but how they see it.”

How do you see it?

“Seven, maybe seven and a half months.”


“Sir, you are working against the grain. You were hired under false pretenses—that your program had the highest priority from both president and secretary. That’s the way it was when you were hired. Indeed when the secretary showed you the letter the president wrote, both the president and he were red hot about it. Not now. It all changed a few days ago.”

I’m amazed. You know about the letter.

“Yes sir. There’s such a thing as Correspondence Control again. Ask me about it sometime. Now, I don’t follow politics and have never done so because I am a civil service professional. But this president, sir, has recently come to understand that if he wishes to be reelected, he needs the South and the Southern members of Congress—especially Mr. Thurmond, of South Carolina, sir—are generally indebted to a white constituency. That constituency doesn’t cotton much, if I may use that term, sir, to a president elected with the great help of the white South giving undue federal resources to blacks. I regret to say blacks are very dubious that anything will come of this as well. So putting it frankly, sir, your allies in the White House including the president are fast fading. Your only allies will be the liberal Republicans in the House and Senate—of which there are not very many…such as Senator Javits of New York…and the Democrats. But the Democrats don’t want you to succeed either, sir because of partisan reasons. That’s why the betting is as it is.”

This has affected Secretary Stans?

“Sir, since I don’t follow politics and have never done so because I am a professional civil servant, I have no opinion on the matter but the rumor is that Mr. Ehrlichman who talked on the telephone with the secretary has expressed grave misgivings about a program that could disturb what he called `the moorings’…his words…of the 1968 election dynamics which would, he felt, have to be repeated in 1972. Mr. Stans’ attitude changed greatly since he sought to hire you. Then he saw Black Capitalism as a great boon. Now he sees it as a great upset to his wish to ultimately become treasury secretary when Mr. David Kennedy leaves. Mr. Stans is a prodigious worker but less so when his superiors become disinterested if you know what I mean. That’s the word—but what do I know?”

Did you overhear the telephone conversation between the secretary and Ehrlichman?

“Oh, no, my word no, sir. Highly unprofessional. That was of a political nature and out of my ken as a professional civil servant.”

But you know the usage of the word “moorings” by Mr. Ehrlichman.

“Yes sir.”

How do you know this?

“The text of the conversation was contained in a memo from the secretary to himself—for the record—and memos to various people. All memos written by the secretary go to Correspondence Control which I referred to earlier. It’s a unit run by faceless civil servant professionals like me for storage and referrals for action.”

And this word was contained in the memo. Along with--.

“Along with the view of the secretary that the entire operation has to be chilled, cooled. Minority enterprise is not what it was say last week, sir.”

I see.

“If I may express an opinion, I would hope you would give it the gun as we say, sir. It has the stuff to be a valuable program. As a faceless professional, I will see you get support and will back you up. You’ve made the decision now. You’ll be fired anyhow. As we say around here, sir, step on the gas, let them fire you for too much enthusiasm and go down fighting. A lot of clichĂ©s there. But--”

David—if I may call you that…

“Yes sir.”

You are a gem. Now, I need a loyal, very loyal, personal secretary. One from the Commerce bureaucracy, who knows it just as you do but who is loyal—to the program and to me.

“Yes sir. I have already identified one—the best if I may say so-- and she can be on hand for an interview in a minute’s notice.”

Someone who is clearly tuned in as you are. You have identified her?

“Yes sir. She is a veteran of Correspondence Control if you know what that means—one whose sister and cousin still work in correspondence control which is very important as you can see. She is a vigorous young black lady who knows this place as well as I do. She wants the program to succeed, sir.”

Excellent. You have her name. I’ve got to go to the White House now to see--.

“Mr. Harry Flemming. If you wish, I will arrange for a car and driver from the auto pool and can make an appointment for you in your capacity as an assistant secretary of Commerce.”

But I am not an assistant secretary. I will be an assistant to the secretary. Assistants to the secretary are a notch lower than assistant secretaries. And I am not yet an appointee, haven’t been sworn in. I can take a cab.

“Begging your pardon, sir. On your formal job title, my staff slurs its sentences on occasion so I should not be surprised if Mr. Flemming sees you as soon as possible in your capacity as a future assistant secretary of commerce. And in this town, appearances count everything, sir. You should arrive in a Commerce car with driver waiting for you to return. It’s entirely kosher as your appointment has been processed and awaiting only your swearing-in.”

David. I’ll need you to stick close for the next—what—six months?

“Oh I should say seven, sir. It will be a privilege to see how you get on, sir, if that is how to put it. I understand you and your wife are expecting a fourth child, sir. Congratulations. As an old married man, I would advise not letting your wife in on the expected brevity of your service, sir.”

We’ll see. And when I come back here I’ll see your applicant for my secretary.

“She will come in handy in keeping you informed of the details at Commerce, sir. She is not Schedule C but is a faceless professional civil servant like me.”

A faceless professional like you is what I want.

“Let us say she will also come in handy for planning the details for Mr. Hamilton’s forthcoming farewell party, sir, if your meeting with Harry Flemming works out. A number of us are looking forward to it. We professionals at Commerce always have farewell parties for people who leave when their political Schedule Cs have expired. That is the Commerce way. Like the poem by Tennyson about the brook sir: `Men may come and men may go but I go on forever.’”

A farewell loose-limbed swing.

On this one fact—and only one—David Koch…true wit…perspicacious civil servant…gifted with a highly sensitive political antennae…terrific golfer, excellent pitcher on our OMBE summer softball team…was incorrect. Like me, he was then a young man, in his 40s. Unlike Tennyson’s brook he did not go on forever. A few years after I left Commerce before he reached 50, he died of a brain hemorrhage. I saw him a few times after I returned to private business and went to his funeral.


At the White House, Harry Flemming was only too glad to look in his book and identify Walter Hamilton as the Democratic Schedule C.

“There is some thought that he may be valuable in the interim until you get your feet on the ground after your swearing in,” he said. “But you don’t think so?”

I don’t. Now there are others who may. But I am told you need Schedule Cs.

“I do and Ehrlichman has given me a flat order to get rid of the Democrat Schedule Cs. So I’ll just take it from here. If there’s a complaint back there, they’ll call me. And I’ll just answer with one word which will shut them up. Ehrlichman.”


After I got back to Commerce and remonstrated with Abe Venable on our faux choice of office space, we looked at more modest digs, approved them and I had to catch a plane back to Chicago. He and I both thanked God for David Koch and pledged never to turn our backs on the Commerce bureaucracy again.

As I got in the elevator going down, there was Walter Hamilton.

“Oh, Tom. By now you know that the effort I made—the strenuous effort—to get you good offices, didn’t work out. But at least we tried, didn’t we?”

Yes, especially you, Walter. You tried very hard. And I appreciate it.

“Thank you! You may get a bit of flak for that telegram from the secretary or Rocco, but believe me, around here they respect a man who knows what he wants—so just shrug it off.

Already have shrugged it off, Walter.

“I’ll tell you, I’ve learned something being around this long, serving three different secretaries of commerce in two political parties!”

Already, you’ve taught me a good deal, Walter.

When the elevator door opened on the ground floor, he shook my hand and said:

“Looking forward!.”

“So am I!”

As he charged away with his briefcase in hand, I reflected: Scary how soon I had adjusted to the Commerce style. Right off, I acted as duplicitously as any bureaucratic phony—and had mastered the vocabulary of a faceless professional.


  1. kingpin richard nixon

  2. This is a classic, and if I may say so sir, you have an prodigious memory. I enjoyed this very much and will print it out for reading at the dining room table this evening.

  3. A classic indeed. The Koch and Roeser dialogue reminded me of Jeeves giving advice to, and arranging the life of, Bertie Wooster. I found myself really looking forward to the concluding episode though you did deny us the delicious moment, probably because you were't there, when Hamilton realizes that he has been "terminated", "His face turned momentarily white, and he was heard muttering under his breath as he cleaned out his desk 'Koch, that damned Koch again!', he might have said, and a scene from his farewell party would have been nice. I think we can safely predict that Hamilton landed on his feet somewhere, as a lobbyist perhaps, or a low-life journalist, or more likely, somewhere else in the bureaucracy, a future mover and shaker in other administrations. The picture, I think, is quite appropriate, for this is a story of bureacratic amorality and treachery, a genre for which Valerie Plame is the perfect poster girl.