Monday, April 2, 2007

Flashback: More About Bill Geimer--and How the White House Called the CEOs of the Big 4 Automobile Companies.

[More from fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Starting in the mid-1960s when I was working for Quaker Oats and trying to get a corporate social responsibility program started, I would spend a great deal of time on the city’s South and West Sides, meeting community leaders from a very young Reverend Jesse Jackson who ran what was then known as “Operation Breadbasket”…named by the oracular firebrand to supposedly “feed the hungry poor”…tediously still with us…by importuning monies and contracts from major companies…to his bitter critic, my hero, Baptist senior pastor Reverend Joseph Jackson…to the leader of the most popular church on the South Side (who had a spiritual, non-economic, conservative and pro-life mission), another hero, Bishop Louis Henry Ford, of the Church of God in Christ, after whom the expressway is named.

The non-clergy characters included Jeff Fort, now serving a life sentence in prison for multiple murders and a young member of the Black P Stone Nation who desperately wanted to get away from gangs…whom I referred to executive vice president Fenton Guinee of Quaker, who saw he was hired, the company keeping him for thirty years, he eventually getting into computers—Timmy Sardin. In 1964, I met Walter Sorg and his friend, John McClaughry, a white, conservative near-genius associated with Chuck Percy (but not nearly as liberal) who was evolving his idea of a Community Self-Determination Act (which never passed). And one night, after I spent hours in a dingy church basement talking with McClaughry, he said that later a good friend of his would drop in—by the name of Bill Geimer.

It is highly interesting in that Geimer became a gigantically influential CIA-related source—an unobtrusive but attractive young man who, nevertheless, played a major role in 1978—long after we had parted friendship—in managing the post-defection of the highest Soviet officer, Arkady Nikolayevich Shevchenko, the under-secretary general of the United Nations, a one-time chief of the Soviet Mission’s security council and political affairs division at the UN and a top adviser to Andrei Gromyko. In 1975 Shevchenko had decided to defect; it was a time of détente between the eastern bloc and NATO nations and he became disillusioned with the USSR; as one with close access to the Soviet foreign policy establishment he believed that internal economic policies were depriving the Russian people of freedom.

He made contract with the CIA but it pressured him to remain at his post and to supply them with info on the Soviet. For the next three years he did, becoming a triple agent: (a) a UN official, (b) a Soviet top-level official and (c) a covert spy for the U. S. But in 1978 he felt the KGB was getting on to him; then he was ordered to return to the USSR for “consultations.” Shevchenko knew his time was up so he called the CIA and demanded it fulfill its promise of political asylum. The CIA handed him over to Geimer who nurse-maided him in great fashion (but also in some uproariously comic episodes including introducing him to a woman who became central in solving Shevchenko’s romantic needs and who became his second wife). When it was appropriate, Geimer got him a publisher and the entire story …including Geimer’s brilliant management of the international coup…was splashed across “Time” magazine.

I can only say when I read about Geimer’s role in the defection, after knowing him very well for a considerable period, I told my wife at the time, “I’m surprised—but not surprised.” He always had a winning cloak-and-dagger private intelligence-gathering aspect to him (similar to that cultivated by David Koch)—but he was as less inclined to war with Stans; nevertheless he was indispensable to me we engaged in our own variant of the Cold War with the secretary of commerce circa 1969-70. All in all, he was probably one of the greatest “assets” i.e. a CIA term that the nation ever had (while I am not sure when he came on board with the CIA or how it happened).

Geimer, said McClaughry, was a highly interesting person for me to meet. Indeed he was; he remains even in death one of the most fascinating men I ever met or worked with. In his early 30s when we met, he had gone to law school at Marquette, a Jesuit university (coincidence abound in every life as in mine: at Marquette he graduated with the lawyer, later judge, wife of my assistant, Pat Racey, Sheila Murphy and was acquainted with the Raceys) and developed a conservative yet socially conscientious philosophy that made him a soul-mate of McClaughry: a conservative with deep passion for social justice. Not too many of people like Geimer around, said McClaughry.

Indeed McClaughry and Geimer were the only two I met who fit the description of conservative fighter for social justice, intellectually as well as politically. Most whites interested in alleviating black poverty were strongly liberal and sometimes angry: calling for more state resources. McClaughry and Geimer were passionate about rectifying poverty but understood that public assistance renders one dependent; they striving instead to energize the private sector to help blacks liberate themselves from stereotypical liberalism and the Democratic party. Geimer was the second person who expressed the view to me that liberalism is, of itself, a social malfunction; the first being my own father (long before the thought was made disreputably commonplace by the eccentric Michael Savage).

Instead they wanted to mobilize private and independent resources to get blacks into the mainstream. Both worked in government to get the private sector harnessed, Geimer using my agency—and educating me—to do it. His belief in private sector as a bootstrap attracted me because that was where, at that time, I was coming from (from which I retreated briefly and to which I have since, for many years, returned). “I don’t know how you plan to use Geimer,” said McClaughry. I said I don’t plan to “use” anybody. “Well,” he said, “stick close to him `cause he’s an important resource. He could either help you at Quaker or whatever else you want to do. I consider him a man destined for great things.”

When Geimer arrived, I saw a strikingly handsome, slightly built, shortish young man—looking rather like the boyish Montgomery Clift before he had had his devastating automobile accident which ravaged his patrician features. The prime thing about Geimer was that he was slight, dark-hairedly handsome with soulful blue eyes…almost like those of a captivating puppy which trained on you the moment you interested him—eyes that could speak volumes from deep philosophical truths. A manly guy, his eyes were limpid and uniquely feminine—eyes that convinced a good many people that he was a seeker of truth…including me. From that time on, until shortly before the Shevchenko episode and when he founded the Jamestown Foundation (an invaluable Cold War resource and today an invaluable repository of facts gleaned from former CIA and other sources on terrorism), we were the closest of friends and his wife Maureen (known as Mo) and kids were for a time playmates with my own when Lillian and they came to spend some months with me during the summer.

It was those eyes that gave him what he called a “crying towel face”—the face that led people to confide their innermost secrets and weaknesses to him. At least three people I knew with matrimonial difficulties in Washington…all of whom worked for Percy…actively sought him out for counsel—why he didn’t know. But I knew. His eyes had that quality that seemed to look into your soul and understand. But enough.

I brought him to Washington to work with me at Commerce, promoted him to special assistant and gave him the job of writing the legal and economic details of a plan I had for a private-public profit-making corporation to engage in long-range help for the minority economy. My wife was expecting a baby during a very rough pregnancy in Chicago which necessitated her not traveling for a while; so as a bachelor, I grabbed dinner often with the Geimers who lived in Bethesda. Geimer and I worked through many nights planning strategy for the new corporation we were involved in—and many of the nights after we finished, I bunked in their rec room basement, before driving home early morning and changing clothes.

He was particularly good advising me whenever I had to go to the Hill to testify before House or Senate committees or whenever I had to meet with Stans or his undersecretary Siciliano for our frequent bouts of forensic arm-wrestling where they at first earnest beseeched me to quit or else they would have to fire me. Geimer was a calm, serious but deadly accurate political strategist. Nothing he ever told me to do in testimony ever backfired; most of the things he suggested were devices that put our congressional adversaries—including some anti-OMBE Republicans—on the defensive. As time moved on, I became very fond and very dependent on him. In looks, he was a dead-ringer…so identical it was uncanny…for the disc jockey Dick Clark, even then known as the oldest teen-ager in America, presider-over of the TV show “American Bandstand.”

He was more than an economic conservative…although economic conservative he was—a quoter of Milton Friedman and moreover of a thinker named Richard Cornuelle—a gifted writer and self-taught economist with masterly inattention to detail—but he was a patriot. He was a thorough scholar, a reader of Edmund Burke, Henry Adams, Paul Elmer More, George Sangtayana, C. W. Lewis and Michael Oakeshott. Lyndon Johnson was president when I met Geimer and was taking a fearsome beating on Vietnam, but Geimer was a strong anti-Communist with statistics and fortifications that bolstered his case. Moreover, as I learned when we visited his house, he was a superb guitarist. I have often thought that his most salient role would be as a confidential—very confidential—adviser to a president. No shrinking violet, he agreed he was highly qualified. About himself he told me what he wished me to know; no more. He had a kind of romantic attraction for secrets and clandestine activities even then.

He had eclectic tastes in poetry and had his favorite historians. He could draw exquisite parallels between ancient history and then current trends. He was a virulent anti-Communist at a time when anti-Communism had been regarded as passé (Joe McCarthy not having been all that forgotten), a devotee of Richard Nixon stemming from his investigation of Alger Hiss. He was not afraid to defend McCarthy; he had read and re-read the book “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers. His wife, “Mo” Geimer, was attractive but less conservative than he; she more of an Irish, pro-Daley Democrat I judged. But she had her hands full with three young boys. When we sat up late at night plotting strategy, she would say abruptly, “oh Lord, I can’t stand this skullduggery; I’m going to bed.” She was beauteous and charming. But after our break up in which she did not have a role, I never saw her again.

The one thing I never got to know about Bill was how serious he was about Catholicism. My guess is he was not. Neither Catholicism or its verities seemed to come up although I tried to plumb it. For someone who believed in absolutes, I wondered to what fabric those absolutes were pinned: mine was to the Church…not that I am a lip-synch kiss-the-book, light-the-candle Catholic (although a daily Mass-goer) but it is the Faith whose prayers I learned at my mother’s knee and which I shall lisp one day (please, God, not soon) when the Great Innkeeper comes to my bedside jangling his keys and saying, “Mr. Roeser, it’s closing time.” While he was nominal, I never reckoned what Bill really believed on that score since whenever the topic raised, he veered away. He died, I hear, of colon cancer and had a good deal of time to reflect—but I missed that period with him.


I talked much with Bill Geimer about trying to get the president—or failing him, the secretary of commerce—to call the CEOs of the four top automobile companies…GM, Ford, American Motors and Chrysler…to urge them to do one thing: set aside 25 dealership opportunities each—for a total of 100—for properly qualifying minorities (I was thinking blacks). But nothing would work; no entreaties got much of a response. At that time, Bill thought I should just wing it and do it myself—writing them straightforwardly and see what would happen.

But I knew a call from me wouldn’t do it. I’d be referred to some low-level functionary and a paper flow would start that would never end. I knew one such functionary at Chrysler, like me a public affairs manager (named Arnold Porter) a nice guy,but in no position to guarantee such a commitment. Abe Venable, my deputy, agreed that we would be spinning our wheels without help from Higher Up. Ideally, a call from the president would break the log-jam. How to do it?

It was resolved one night by happy coincidence. I went to a U. S. Chamber of Commerce reception for Nixon appointees. The U. S. Chamber was a firm supporter of the minority enterprise program. I was having a drink with a bright Chamber employee named Owen Kugel when he mentioned that a relatively low-level White House employee named Bruce Rabb (the son of Eisenhower’s cabinet secretary Max Rabb) had a powerful ally in reaching out to important people. He introduced me to Rabb. He said as with all offices in the White House, his was hooked up to the White House switchboard.

White House operators are, he said, frenetic people. Accustomed to getting the desired person on the line whenever a president or top staff demands it, they apply the same routine to everyone—even to the extent of sending someone running down the fairways of a golf course with a phone extension, yelling to the recipient, “White House calling!” Even when serving small fry, the White House switchboard would place a call, with an officious female operator saying, “White House calling!” and call literally all over the world to get a response. And who wouldn’t be gratified to hear himself paged with that kind of introduction: “White House calling”? Rabb enjoyed it very much. I more than enjoyed the story; I decided to find someone with a White House phone (Rabb declined to play the game). Eventually I did find a very low official—working in an out-of-the-way place, in fact in the sub-basement of the Executive Office building. But nevertheless when he picked up the receiver, he had the famous White House line with the same service the president had.

One afternoon I took off from my office, went to the Executive Office building sub-basement and commandeered the phone with his permission while he was at a meeting. I picked up the receiver, told the Operator I was working on a presidential project, what my name was and said, “Operator—get me Henry Ford II, CEO of Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.” I sat back and thumbed through a magazine for about five minutes; then the phone rang and she said, “I have Henry Ford on the line from the Republic of Tanzania in Africa, Mr. Roeser! Go ahead, Mr. Henry Ford!” God, the majesty of that moment stays with me yet.

I had made the breakthrough!

He sounded like he was out-of-breath, exclaiming: “This is Henry Ford!”

I said: Mr. Ford, Tom Roeser here at the White House--calling about the program that the president is very much interested in—a program to get more qualified minorities to own dealerships…

He blurted, “Wonderful! I am very much interested in the initiative the president made last year. I was just looking over a publication the other day that said, I believe, of the 28,000 dealers in the United States there are only seven which are owned by minorities!” I was entranced. I didn’t have to give him a pitch at all about the social rewards of equitably making sure dealerships were given to qualified minorities. He helped me by saying that Whitney Young of the Urban League could set up a program and Ford would help fund it to train young black men to learn about the industry and how to run dealerships. He asked: “Would that be helpful, Mr. Mr.--?”

Roeser. R-o-e-s-e-r. Yes, it would be greatly beneficial. Our idea is to have a meeting in Detroit with leaders like yourselves and have each one make a commitment of twenty-five dealer opportunities for qualified minorities. Which would bring the total number to a hundred opportunities guaranteed—after one meeting.

He said, “Wonderful. I’d be happy to call Jim Roche, Lynn Townsend and Roy Chapin when I get back which will be next week if you wish.”

Thank you but I will call them. Perhaps your secretary can talk to my secretary and give us a couple of dates when our people in Commerce can make the trip and meet each one of you personally and individually.

“Delighted! I’ll have her call you!”

I was ecstatic. Thereupon, I used the magic phone to call all the others. By the time I left the White House, I had had my own secretary at Commerce coordinating with theirs for a meeting in a week or so in Detroit.

When I returned to my office, Abe Venable congratulated me on the stunning break-through. Note: The adjoining photo was taken instantly by David Koch using our office camera—and it registers my pleasure. But Bill Geimer was less than impressed. Was it that I had topped him in clandestine operations which he would have liked to perform? Or was it the orthodox conservative in him? He thought it was a mistake not to go through channels. In the short-range, he was right, of course. But when you’re 41 and have used the magic White House line to converse with a deferential Henry Ford, why regret it? And even now at this final stage of decrepitude of 78, I still treasure the memory. So I cavalierly told him to go to hell and let me run the politics.

He agreed and returned to his task I had assigned—to write the legal dimensions for the national strategy which he did superbly. Every weekend, of course, I would go to Chicago to be with Lillian and our kids. Note: the accompanying photo was taken at that time when we attended a Black Expo convention put on at McCormick Place by Jesse Jackson. The 1969 photo shows Lillian, pregnant and at her most beautiful, me and our then three kids: Tommy, Mary Catherine and Michael.

While Geimer outlined the corporation structure and rationale on a yellow pad, Abe Venable and a few from our office—including a towering black young University of Chicago Divinity school scholar whom I hired to get relate us to the powerful network of black churches…an impressive man of six-feet-seven, Johnny Johnson…prepared to go to Detroit with me to score dividends for our program. How we made out—later.

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