Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Flashback: The Peace Corps Days: How to Get (a) the Director to Meet with Nixon to Whom He Reported…and (b) the Leftists Out of the Agency.

[Memoirs extending over 50 years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

The Peace Corps…as an independent agency of the federal government reporting directly to the president…was originally the idea of Congressman Henry Reuss (D-Wisconsin) in the late 1950s. It had no business being an agency of the federal government. The Peace Corps concept belonged in the private sector; indeed there were private sector peace corps such as Accion, in Latin America, formed by a young idealist named Joseph Blatchford.

But with the grueling battle in the Cold War between dovish liberal Democratic idealists who wanted our foreign policy to captivate the imagination of the developing nations and the Cold Warriors, the idea of an independent agency of the federal government which would fight poverty in the Third World, teach natives how to irrigate, provide sanitation gained great popularity. Reuss talked about it but he didn’t publicize it well so it was snatched up by Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 primaries; Humphrey dolled up the idea and made it his baby. But with his overwhelming charisma, JFK “announced” the idea at the University of Michigan and it gained root. A plaque still exists at the school where he stood when making the proposal. Humphrey never really got over that. Kennedy named his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver as its first head and Shriver put it to good use. One big problem: the legislation required foreign nations to formally request the Peace Corps volunteers to be sent to their countries.

The headache was no foreign countries made the request. They weren’t interested in blonde kids from Winnetka teaching them English—or teaching them anything. They wanted one thing: foreign aid. Then Shriver got on a plane and visited fourteen countries in twenty days conveying this message: No foreign aid for you until and unless you request Peace Corps. They all hustled in their requests to get the foreign aid. An LBJ political type with a divinity degree as a Baptist preacher, Bill Moyers, publicized the effort (he was the first to hold my job) and idealism sprouted.

And so Shriver took the Peace Corps lemon and made lemonade. By the time LBJ left office, the Peace Corps was fast fading. Nixon was disinterested in anything that smacked of JFK and his appointee, Joseph Blatchford, was determined to get presidential visibility for his ideas of refurbishing the agency. I was hired as the agency publicist to do one thing—try to direct Nixon’s attention to Blatchford and the Peace Corps. How someone who had been fired earlier from Commerce with some help from the White House was expected to do this was an interesting question.

Nevertheless, on the Monday after leaving Commerce, I reported for duty at the Peace Corps, located in a private office building at 806 Connecticut avenue northwest. Here’s an interesting thing about Washington. The more you live and work there, the more coincidences occur—viz: the day I was fired from Commerce was the day another young man was let go at Justice because he couldn’t get along with John Mitchell, the attorney general. He was John Sears, a crack delegate hunter and analyst for the Nixon campaign who had begun with Mudge, Rose & Nixon in New York. Sears and I met a few days later at a party and compared notes. That friendship was instrumental in getting me connected with the early campaign of Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1976, when Sears was the campaign manager for the effort to dislodge Gerald Ford. Another vis: my first day at work for the Peace Corps, I went to the director’s office to be sworn in as a foreign service officer. The director’s secretary who had been hired just a few months earlier was an attractive African-American lady named…guess who?

Betty Williams. Doesn’t ring a bell? How about the name Betty Currie? A few years later she became Betty Currie, the private secretary to President Bill Clinton who played a major role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment. Earlier, you will remember me writing that a stenographer who worked with me in the office of Congressman Al Quie in the 1950s ended up quite circuitously as a major domo in the White House working for President George H. W. Bush…in fact that administrative assistant who ran the entire White House clerical system, Correspondence Control et al and who saw Bush all through every day. These are not isolated events; Washington is still a small enough town that if you’re there any time at all, you could very easily get to know people who, without much career planning, end up in important positions.

Another viz: an unmarried Minnesota woman I knew, Kay Humphrey, dedicated clerical worker and idea merchant who was getting along in years, moved from the office of Sen. Ed Thye (R-Minnesota) who was defeated to a slot in the RNC and from there to a secretary’s spot in the Nixon White House. Working there, she chummed with another slave to a typewriter and telephone, so-called “old maid” about her age, Rosemary Woods, secretary to the president (and older sister of Joseph Woods, the Republican Cook county sheriff whose campaign Clem Stone spent millions on).

Although Woods and Humphrey were exploited workaholics, they were happily indentured servants to their selfish boss, Richard Nixon who thought nothing of giving Woods and her assistant Humphrey assignments that kept them working Sundays and holidays around the clock including Thanksgiving and sometimes Christmas. That was their purpose in living. I stopped by one day at Christmastime I972 and saw that they didn’t have even a small Christmas tree for their offices. So I went out to People’s Drug Store and bought them one. As I carried it into their office, both of them wiped away tears. Nobody ever thought of doing anything like that for them.

This despite the fact that their jobs gave them enormous access. Kay Humphrey would, for example, drive to the White House from her apartment building, the Mary Washington house on the northwest side of D. C. and arrive in her office at 7 a.m. Regularly when she would make the turn into her office, she would see Nixon sitting at her desk with a cup of coffee reading the “Washington Post” and goddamning its editorials. Why was he in her office? Because she had a coffee pot continually brewing and he just wanted to read the paper so he would park there. He’d say, “oh, good morning, Kay. Did you see this?” and he’d point a finger at the editorial and stand around and drown her with his wordy rebuttals. It was historic but it happened so often she got used to it. By 7:15 a.m. he’d go into his own Oval Office next door.

The gesture of getting Woods and Humphrey a Christmas tree, feeble as it was, got me more of an inside track and returned favors—more inside stuff including what an insufferable jerk Henry Kissinger was and the way Nixon blew his nose so loudly with a noise that sounded like a squeal in the nearby Oval Office that Rose Mary would look up from her typing and exclaim “the noon whistle!”—how conspiratorial Haldeman and Ehrlichman were etc.—more valuable than anything else I could have done. Including on how the 18-minute delay on the White House tapes happened. (It was purposely done said Kay Humphrey by Someone All Thumbs who never ran a tape recorder before…always having had someone do it for him…that Someone determining to eradicate damning stuff that could have meant impeachment—but doing it so inexpertly that it triggered widespread attention). Kay told me, “Rose Mary told him she would do it but Someone didn’t want her involved—which was sorta nice.”).

No one believes it but human nature remains the same when clerical workers are bumped upstairs to work for policy molders. They all feel the same tension is high, hours grow long and they are weary. So it was with Betty Williams later Betty Currie.

Betty Currie, then Betty Grace Williams, was born in Edwards, Mississippi, moved to Waukegan, Illinois as a child, went to Waukegan high school in 1939, graduated, got a job as a typist at the Great Lakes naval base, transferred to Washington, D. C. for a job with the Navy at the Pentagon—then the Postal Service, U. S. Agency for International Development (AID), the Peace Corps—where she worked for the director, Joe Blatchford—and later the Department of Health and Human Services before retiring (the first time). A divorcee with one child, a daughter, she followed Republican Blatchford over to ACTION the new agency that had folded in the Peace Corps, VISTA and a number of other agencies. She was not a Republican then but could have been mistaken for one: I remember well the day she got mad because Peace Corps liberals delayed installing the obligatory framed portrait of Nixon in Blatchford’s office.

Then, when I knew her, she was doing exactly what she later did for Clinton (with some later exceptions). She’d sit outside the boss’s office; answer the phones; opened his mail; greet his visitors; taking his mood temperature for anxious guests; correcting his spelling; keeping him on schedule; bringing him news good and bad. She was a great help to me as one who officed down the hall. She was a calming presence, always had a candy bowl on her desk (which I raided)—even a cold cloth for an aching forehead. Once she got up from her desk and fastened my button-down shirt which had gone askew.

Non-ideological—even then maybe a tad Republican—unique for an African American--through loyalty to her Republican boss, she was then a civil servant. Then, in the late 1970s when the Republicans left and were replaced by Jimmy Carter appointees, ACTION was headed by one Robert Currie, a strongly liberal Democratic activist. Betty Williams and Robert Currie dated, got married and the two of them ran the agency hand-in-glove. Robert Currie’s liberal anger so got to his wife that she adopted a partisan bent.

Traveling to Washington for Quaker during those Carter days, I would drop in for a chat at my old Peace Corps haunts during those days and saw her changed attitude. She told me over coffee: “I see it now. The name of this game is politics. If we want to save this agency, we must help those who are favorable to us.” Then when Ronald Reagan came in, Currie was out and ACTION was turned over to a man who is now a friend of mine, Tom Pauken of Dallas, the former state Republican chairman. Pauken had heard that Betty Currie was running the joint through the pillow-talk advice of her private sector husband so he banished Currie. From that time on, she hooked up with ex-Chicagoan John Podesta (whom I also knew; he was raised in the neighborhood around Assumption church, 323 West Illlinois street, the first church built for and by Italian Catholics in Chicago at the request of Mother Cabrini. Podesta (brother of Tony head of People for the American Way) got her campaign jobs —working for Mondale for president (1984) and Dukakis (1988). When she finished Dukakis she swore to her husband that she was finished with politics for good, saying, “I’m tired of working for losers.”.

But she wasn’t. She was so good an administrator that she got a call from James Carville to join the Bill Clinton reelection team in Little Rock, Arkansas for governor in 1990. Clinton was a sure-thing for reelection; she worked for him and after his reelection which he won 57% to 42% took a job as his secretary in the governor’s mansion. The next year Clinton went on a statewide tour asking voters to release him from his pledge to serve the full term…saying he wanted to run for president. The response was favorable. In the presidential campaign of 1992, Currie was the top administrator in the famed “War Room” which Carville ran in Little Rock. With Clinton’s election as president, John Podesta became a top White House official (later chief of staff) and Betty Currie went to the White House as Clinton’s personal secretary with a desk right outside the Oval Office.

Everything was o.k. until Clinton got involved with Monica Lewinsky. Currie spent hours answering questions before Kenneth Starr and a grand jury which focused on whether Currie could say that (a) Clinton tried to enlist her in covering up the affair with Lewinsky, (b) by helping find Lewinsky a job and (c) retrieving several gifts from Lewinsky that Clinton purchased for her. The questions Starr asked included (a) was the president expecting Lewinsky to call or did she come to see Currie and seize the moment to see Clinton? (b) did Clinton and Lewinsky ever meet alone? and (c) at whose request did Currie knock on Lewinsky’s Watergate apartment door and ask for the gifts her boss gave to her—Clinton’s or Lewinsky’s? Currie answered all the questions deftly and avoided an indictment for perjury. But she couldn’t save Clinton.


Before I was hired by Blatchford, we met and he acknowledged that I was “hot property” i.e. hotly controversial because of the minority enterprise imbroglio with Stans and the White House. “I don’t care about that,” he said. “You’re supposed to be good at devising some creative angles, aren’t you? Well here’s one. Technically I report to the president of the United States—Richard Nixon—because when the Peace Corps was instituted, the director, Sargent Shriver, was JFK’s brother-in-law. The formal reporting relationship on paper hasn’t changed. But get this—the informal relationship has changed. I have the status of an assistant secretary of state and it’s expected that I report to the secretary of state, Bill Rogers [William P. Rogers].

“For all his historical closeness to Nixon, both having served in the Eisenhower administration, Nixon doesn’t rely on Rogers whatsoever but on Henry Kissinger, the national security director, as you know. Kissinger is very jealous of his prerogatives; Nixon is not interested whatsoever in the Peace Corps because it was Kennedy’s baby. He’d just as soon see the damned thing die and be buried. Rogers is interested but has no power. What I want to do is to figure out how to get my ideas about conservatizing the Peace Corps to Nixon. I go to White House receptions and try to talk to Nixon one-on-one. Whenever he sees he, he’s like quicksilver, he spurts to the other side of the room and is gone.”

Blatchford was a tennis pro in his earlier life. I suggested: H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman are tennis fanatics. Have you tried to play them in the White House tennis court and wiggle in to see Nixon that way?

“Yes. I play there all the time and even allow them to win on occasion. But whenever I try to get by them, it’s like the Iron Curtain—the Germanic Iron Curtain…the Berlin Wall. They aren’t interested in the Peace Corps. So the receptions, the tennis games don’t cut it. Your job—your number one job—is to figure out how I can get in to see Nixon. Anything else you do—get us more publicity—is fine but that’s the big job. Got it?”

Got it. I’d try to think about it.

As I was leaving he said, “oh-oh. There’s another thing. I’d like you to see Ed Herman.”

Ed Herman was his closest friend and aide, the nearest thing the agency had to Commerce’s David Koch. I liked him immediately. He was a foreign service officer and loyal to the president.

Herman said: “Foreign service people—that’s what you are now—are different than other bureaucratic types…especially Peace Corps personnel. The legislation that set us up required that staff has to leave, that there has to be a turnover, every five years. This place is lousy with leftists. I mean it. These guys want us to lose the Vietnam War! This entire building is populated from top to bottom with the Left. Your department—the department that publicizes the Peace Corps—is filled with Leftists. Your job is to get rid of them and replace them with new recruits who are loyal to this president and this country. Okay? You can fire them. No problem. Kick them out! But on the other hand, you can’t lose your credibility with the agency. How you decide to do it is your problem. But do it.”

Okay. After I got installed in my office, I met the people who would work for me—leftists all. One had a poster of Che Guevara in his cubicle, a guy with a scraggly beard, hot eyes that begged for revolution…a former Peace Corps volunteer who despised Nixon and looked sullenly at me as if I was sullying the very office that nine years earlier the sainted Bill Moyers occupied. Others had angry anti-Nixon cartoons; there were regular coffee klatches on anti-Nixon activities. Pot smoking was okay. Initially they liked me because I had tangled with Stans. But if they figured I was one of them, they had another think coming. I decided to get rid of the Che Guevara guy first of all then as many as I could.

But most important—how to get Blatchford an entrée into the Oval Office with a Nixon who hated the Peace Corps? How that happened, next.

1 comment:

  1. Quite the contrary, Brother Graf; Tom's affixing of pulchritudinous portraits of the superior gender only props up the powerful postulations and pronouncements pillaring his prose.

    Easy on the eyes too!