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A Letter from the Wasteland

Washington, D.C.

We are not being fair when we blame Mr. Nixon for what Washington has always been. The common experience is to come here looking forward to so much and to depart looking back on so little. H. G. Wells found the same detached deadness in the Washington of Theodore Roosevelt, who made every one of those claims on the imagination this president so determinedly avoids. This has almost always been Wells’s city of “sightseers instead of thoughts going to and fro,” its tone permanently set by persons more conscious of life’s perils than of its adventures. Since Mr. Nixon is the epitome of that tone, we should hardly be surprised to find him untroubled by the resistance of such a population.

Any bit of color in this conscientious monochrome serves only to remind us that what Mr. Nixon represents is the enduring spirit of the city. One Thursday early in September, Secor D. Browne, the new chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, was introduced to the White House reporters. His first effect was of surprise that one should come upon a trace of ornament in a dig where the spade hardly ever rewards the aesthetic sense. Chairman Browne turned out indeed very like Arthur Schlesinger at his most amiable, when he mixes the assurance of superiority with the welcome of any stranger as fellow among the superior. So, then, America can still produce a mandarin whose first job was as engineering salesman in Rockford, Illinois. It took only a few quaint measures of self-mockery to evoke for us a departed style and make us half-believe that there had been another, fundamentally different time. And then Chairman Browne pronounced the formula “We of the aviation community‌.”

Now the Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board is commissioned to regulate the aircraft industry; anywhere else but in Washington, it would be curious to encounter a judge whose first remarks upon assuming the robe were an expression of identification with the community of defendants. What is peculiar to the city is that it almost never suggests to us the sense of the nation as a community but continually sets before us its image of a conglomeration of licensed franchise holders.

Senator Edward Kennedy, in opening an investigation of the federal regulatory agencies, sent out a questionnaire to their commissioners and got back replies entirely unconscious of the implications of their philosophy:

We hire a few people from broadcast entities, common carriers and equipment manufacturers. I think this is generally advantageous, because these people often have backgrounds that we could not obtain in any way. To a much greater extent we lose staff members to the regulated industries and to legal and engineering firms that represent them. This often poses problems for us, because it is the abler people who are hired away. However I take some consolation in the fact that there is some advantage in dealing with people who have some experience with the Commission and, hopefully, may have picked up some public interest viewpoints which are carried over into their private law practice. [Federal Communications Commissioner Kenneth Cox]

Working at the SEC is often viewed by those who seek employment with us as a means to accumulate valuable experience which can be used in the private practice of law or in some capacity in the industry. [Securities and Exchange Commissioner Hamer H. Budge]

Many of our employees over the years have left the Commission for employment with the Carriers or to engage in the private practice of law or some occupation in which their skills acquired through their work on the Commission are of value. [Interstate Commerce Commission Chairman Virginia Mae Brown]

We have had little success in employing persons in industry and, conversely, we have lost far too many persons to those industries we regulate. In fact, I suspect that our agency has been used by a number of our young professional employees as a training ground in such industries. [Federal Trade Commissioner Paul Rand Dixon]

Three of these four testaments to social mobility sound altogether proud of the market value of regulatory agency staff members and undisturbed about the channels chosen for their rise in the world. Life here is a matter of career and not of function. The apprenticeship is to reform; and the graduation to craftsman is to counter-reform.

The city’s habitually concentrated attention on the rights of franchise holders was a main element in the Senate’s debate upon and disposition of the military procurement appropriation. The discussion was livelier this year than before in memory but no less a victory for custom. Its unexpected life was almost all owing to Senator William Proxmire, who has used his Subcommittee on Economy in Government to harry that province of benevolent toleration where the Armed Services Committee watches over the military budget.

Proxmire’s most tenacious inquiries had focused on the Air Force’s new C-5A Cargo transport, whose costs seem to be turning out double their original projection. Congress had already authorized fifty-eight C-5A’s. Proxmire proposed only that the Senate defer a $53-million appropriation for building another twenty-three until the General Accounting Office could make an independent study of the plane’s cost and value. He was voted down 64-23; the persistence of the attitudes which dictated that decision is illuminated by any examination of the case they so easily overbore.

The history of the C-5A program had begun with inattention to cost controls, had been followed by entire and then by partial concealment of “cost overruns,” and had now arrived at a confusion where no one could safely say what would be the final price even of the fifty-eight planes the Air Force was committed to buying. In 1965, when Lockheed Aircraft had but lately contracted to build them, they were supposed to cost $1.470 billion. In March of 1968, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Alexander Flax was still telling Congress that the expense of the program was “still within the range it should be” by the terms of Lockheed’s bid.

At the time of Flax’s cheerful announcement, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, the Air Force’s Comptroller’s Deputy for Systems Analysis, had been attempting for two years to tell his superiors that Lockheed “in some key areas” was running 100 percent over its estimates. In December of 1966, Lockheed itself had admitted a general 40 percent overrun to a team of investigators from the Air Force Systems Command. It can be argued for Secretary Flax’s honor, if not for his vigilance, that, when he testified that C-5A’s costs were within the range of original expectations, he was speaking without access to the fifteen-month-old contrary findings of the System Command’s study teams because Air Staff had ordered them expunged from its reports to the Department of Defense.

By November last, this confidence had begun to leak away to mere perplexity; when Proxmire asked John M. Malloy, the Air Force’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Procurement, how far over its original ceiling Lockheed was going, Malloy could only answer, “I have no data.” By January, the Government Accounting Office, at Proxmire’s request, extracted figures from the Air Force which persuaded it to project the ultimate cost of the first fifty-eight C-5A’s at 70 percent over Lockheed’s contract bid. Still, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Robert Charles would publicly admit an overrun of no more than 25 percent or $882 million. The Air Force has since retreated to the concession of 40 percent.

Ernest Fitzgerald, the systems analyst whose pertinacity has made him the family pariah, still expects the final cost to run $2 billion over Lockheed’s contract. Even Fitzgerald cannot feel assured that his figure is correct. Until six months ago, he had been part of what he still thinks of as a determined effort by one faction of the Air Force “to gain greater insights into what things were costing us and where we stood on programs.” This aspiration for what, in other societies, would be assumed as minimal function was so manfully resisted by “the procurement community” of the Defense Department that Fitzgerald was left with “a long list of unanswered questions.” There is plainly very little in the Air Force’s system of cost control that could afford it precise information if wanted; beneath the public mendacities, there is only private bewilderment, classified confidential if possible.

The Air Force had only just begun its passage from public assurance that the C-5A would cost no more than expected to public confession that no one knew what it would cost, when Fitzgerald told the Proxmire subcommittee that the program would run $2 billion over its target price. At the time he testified, Fitzgerald was Deputy for Management Systems to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for financial management and assigned “to the improvement of management controls for the major acquisition programs‌the F-111, the C-5A, Minuteman, SRAM and the like.” Having exhibited himself as candid then and been proved accurate since, he has been removed by his superiors from any responsibility for watching the major acquisition programs and confined to the detection of possible excess costs on a 20-lane bowling alley in Thailand.

No Senator would defend the history of the C-5A’s procurement even while three-quarters of the sitting Senators were voting to continue it. The most consequential spokesmen on the floor for the program were John Stennis, the Armed Services Committee’s chairman, and Margaret Chase Smith, its ranking Republican. Stennis described the arrangement with Lockheed as “not a good contract,” hyperbole for him. Mrs. Smith said that its results so far were tragic, hyperbole for just about anyone. Still this bad beginning had to be carried through to the dubious end. Their reasons were their habits.

Proxmire might be heaped with ceremonial compliments for his zeal and effort by his every opponent; but he could not hope to be recognized as an authority, military judgment being a property vested by the Senate in its Armed Services Committee. The lowest genuflection to the majesty of title was performed by John Pastore of Rhode Island who (1) recited a depressing list of those global strains and troubles produced by our past policies which should impel the Senate “to look into our military strategy”; (2) warned that we shall flirt with disaster if we “make the General Accounting Office assume the function of the Joint Chiefs of Staff” (a body which until then an innocent listener might have thought he intended looking into); and (3) and turned to Mrs. Smith as ultimate judge. (“Is she convinced that this is an effective aircraft?” Pastore asked. “Yes, absolutely,” Mrs. Smith answered.) “I wanted the best military advice on the matter,” Pastore said afterward. “That’s why you heard me ask Mrs. Smith.”

The Armed Services Committee had not, it is true, accepted the Air Force’s bare word on the C-5A’s virtues but had dispatched Senator Barry Goldwater to test the prototype himself. The judgment of machines is a property vested in Goldwater by the Senate, even though he is an Air Force reservist so steadfast in his loyalty that, if Command Systems told him an elephant could fly, he would get on board and dismount attesting that he had flown Beechcraft that were harder to handle.

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