Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

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 programs…the 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.

Even with all that weight against them, the facts of the C-5A’s history might seem heavy enough to induce more than twenty-three Senators to support at least postponement of its continuance. “Why are you surprised that there were so few votes?” Pastore asked a visitor. “It’s just that little clique against Vietnam.” Washington is the resistance of those who go on insisting that America is a success against those who complain of its failures.

Whenever he can, Fitzgerald escapes his exile to the bowling-pin count and lectures on the deficiencies of the procurement community to Washington forums ranging from the Institute of Policy Studies to chapters of the John Birch Society. It is unlikely that references to any injustices done him intrude into these expositions; his person is of that mild and cheerful sort which in no way suggests any impulse of interior aggression to set him on a course beginning in rebellion and ending in exclusion. Yet you look for such a taint more searchingly in Washington than you ever would anywhere else. There is something in the vagrant air which infects even the visitor with curiosity about some hidden flaw in someone with a record of being right on matters where everyone else was so comfortably wrong, and makes him over-conscious of Ralph Nader’s intensity or of the breach of courtesy in the dissents of some regulatory commissioner. In any place so accepting of prescribed error, it is always unsettling to come upon any representative of its opposite. You look for signs of disablement, almost taking it for granted that any man who exercises his critical faculties long enough down here must end up a crank. Would there be quite as much that disturbs us in the Henry Adams of the later years if he had not spent most of them in Washington?

Last of all, the military procurement budget must be upheld because the contractors must be sustained. The sufferings of Senator Alan Cranston of California were the most pitiful example of the workings of this need. Lockheed Aircraft had gotten the C-5A contract by bidding a price lower than it could really have expected to perform, its assumption from history presumably being that the Air Force would somehow provide if it failed. Now Lockheed might lose as much as $671 million if the C-5A program were cut off after the first run of fifty-eight planes. Lockheed’s total net worth is $400 million; it had thus reached that point of “catastrophic loss” from which the Air Force recognizes the duty to rescue any contractor, in order, as Assistant Secretary Charles once explained, “to preserve the integrity of the relationship between Government and industry.”

One way to cut Lockheed’s loss is to go on making C-5A’s; there is hope that the twenty-three planes on the new run will produce an offsetting profit of $164 million. That would still leave a net loss of $507 million next year. Either the Air Force will have to repair that by repricing the contract and absorbing the loss or Congress can allow Lockheed to turn out more C-5A’s, whether it believes they are needed or not.

The same discomforts attend the contract for the Mark II autonavigator. A year ago there were indications that the Autonetics division of North American Rockwell was already running 156 percent over its contract price on the Mark II and might in the end lose from $125-175 million.

At that time Fitzgerald set the terms of the problem in a memorandum to his superiors:

Considerable feeling can be found in the Air Force…that Autonetics should be “let off the hook,” at least so that no loss is incurred. Others argue that the procurement system is being tested and the contract must be enforced…. Only in this way, they say, can we make contractors responsible for their written promises during contract time.

Another point which has been largely overlooked is the value of the $125-175 million…. With important programs being cut back by a lack of funds throughout the Government, these funds are vitally needed elsewhere. The implicit notion that the money is more important to North American (Rockwell) than it is to the government, while finding considerable sympathy in the Department of Defense, is a fallacious one.

The Air Force is being tested by a major contractor as to whether it will enforce these written agreements…. If it fails to enforce the contract, the Air Force and the entire Department of Defense can count on many more years of misleading promises from contractors and failure to meet contractual regulations.

No Senator from California, even one who ran against the war, can afford to think this simply. Lockheed’s headquarters are in Burbank and North American Rockwell’s are in Los Angeles. (“Defense is one of Southern California’s leading industries, and employees of the vast Southwestern Military Industrial Complex logically tend to support patriotism, pentagon and pay check,” Kevin Phillips observes.* ) Silent toleration when the contractors are getting themselves into trouble and salvage service after they have gotten into it are matters of survival.

Cranston attributed his vote for the C-5A to the chance that a fleet of great transports might make possible the evacuation of American troops from Europe, a hope whose entertainment at least made it possible for him to be an opponent of the war without being an enemy of the military.

So then, if the early President Nixon, in the abstract anyway, fits the city’s spirit better than the early President Kennedy did, it is because steady work here is the appeasement of tribes.

The difference in fit shows in the appointed political science texts: Kevin Phillips’s The Emerging Republican Majority is now the work one is expected to read, as Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power was in 1961. Phillips, a Harvard Law School graduate, served as “ethnic specialist” to the President’s campaign—“any memorandum I write gets to the top of the heap in five minutes,” he told Joe McGinniss at the time—and has ascended since to a job in the office of the Attorney-General, where he is credited with establishing that mysterious eminence’s supposed judgment that the President need never worry about re-election so long as he respects the feelings of “the list of Republican-trending groups and potentially trending Wallace electorates of 1968: Southerners, Borderers, Germans, Scotch-Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Irish, Italians, Eastern-Europeans and other Catholics, middle-class suburbanites, Sun Belt residents, Rocky Mountain and Pacific Interior populists.”

That, of course, is a catalogue of tribes, real and fancied. Phillips’s concerns have the fascination you often find in the development of obsessive themes. It would hardly be possible to learn as much about the ancestral foundations of the voting habits of the Finns in Northern Wisconsin or the Pennsylvania Dutch in Ohio except in a work so serenely indifferent to the events the rest of us think consequential in our politics as to offer an index with four citations of Eugene McCarthy, one of Vietnam, and one of Robert Kennedy, precisely the number accorded to Anthony Imperiale, symbol of “the White Power Italians of Newark.”

But what seems most significant in Phillips’s message is its passivity. The Republican era is seen by him as an inevitable consequence of the demographical ascendancy of the South, California, and the “Heartland” (pretty much everything west of Pennsylvania except Oregon) where sit the moderate conservative majority growing on its “immense middle-class impetus.” The Republican Party is the socio-economic representative of the America outside the core cities and in the future “stands to lose much less—and gain much more—from the Democratic Party’s identification with the urban Northeast.”

“The national Democratic Party is becoming the Negro party throughout most of the South…. Generally speaking, the South is more realistic than its critics believe, and nothing more than an effective and responsibly conservative Nixon administration is necessary to bring most of the Southern Wallace electorate into the fold against a Northeastern liberal Democratic presidential nominee.”

The new majority has a few other bigotries, the fears of some of its elements that Republican government would “undermine Social Security, Medicare, collective bargaining and aid to education,” for instance. But a Nixon administration need only “dispel these apprehensions” that it might alter the balance of property, and await the appointed rewards of the population charts. In 1961, according to the taste of one new master, Washington read Neustadt whose theme was the engagement of problems; now it reads Phillips whose theme is their avoidance.

Yet Phillips still labors on the outposts of the hermit kingdom Mr. Nixon’s government seems to be. The run of the palace belongs rather to intellectuals very like those we remember from the Democrats, Henry Kissinger and Daniel Moynihan being the most conspicuous cannibals to accept their duty to help these Christians. The Northeast may have been written off as electorally passé; but its academic catering services, if they attract this President less than they did President Kennedy, still attract him powerfully.

Visitors to the interior come back with tales of a fascination with tribal studies different from Phillips’s in the material they examine but pretty much the same in their conclusions. The tribes which occupy Kissinger, recognized senior tutor, are not those comparative strangers to our discussion, the ethnics, but those familiars, the Left and the Right. Kissinger is said to argue that the growth of the Right is the proper cause for worry and that, if the Administration accepts defeat in Vietnam, the sense of betrayal in the country will be dangerous to orderly government. If the mind that remembers Munich has lost command, there is always the mind that remembers Weimar.

Still we ought not to be outraged by the illusion that this estimate of the national temper represents some degradation of government’s previous vista; as spectre, the Right has always counted more than the Left in Washington, being the best excuse for immobility. Until the signals got almost deafening, Senator Eastland was far more a force of concern to President Kennedy than Martin Luther King. And so, when we hear that Moynihan has told the President that Ralph Abernathy is not a figure to worry about or that Moynihan has remarked that “the Left will never forgive us if we solve the war,” we ought to recognize this sort of thing not as a betrayal of Democratic principles but as a continuation of a tradition in presidential advisers.

Last summer, when Mr. Nixon announced his guaranteed annual income program, he told everyone that he had been reading Robert Blake’s Disraeli and had learned there that it was “Tory men with liberal principles who had enlarged democracy in the world.” The guaranteed annual income is an old aspiration of Moynihan’s, and he may be credited with pointing Mr. Nixon toward Disraeli; it is high skill in a courtier to hold up an example which at once comforts his master and adorns his argument. And yet you always wonder just what it was Disraeli did? “Was he a sphinx without a riddle?”, his biographer asks at the end, just as Mr. Nixon leaves us asking.

It is both curious and descriptive how often in the last decade Washington has turned for its model to statesmen of the nineteenth century—President Kennedy’s Melbourne, Kissinger’s Metternich, and now President Nixon’s Disraeli—all buyers of time, politicians the particular success of whose careers was proving how large a margin for ruin there can be in a country or even a continent. How many of the miseries of this century do we owe to these men of the last who so continually bob up as examples for our Presidents?

Mr. Nixon himself is visible only at ceremonies where, with hectic flush, he makes plain how much he enjoys his comfortable fit with the city. There remain traces of unease to be sure, but they all seem connected with worries that something may go wrong with the ceremony rather than with the world. He carried a long curse of public embarrassments before it was lifted two or three years ago; he does not appear yet fully confident that it will not visit its mystery upon him again; during Senator Dirksen’s Memorial services in the Capitol rotunda, he did not seem assured that he had not dropped the floral wreath until he was fully launched upon his speech:

Everett Dirksen was a politician in the finest sense of that much-abused word…. A politician knows that his friends are not always his allies and that his adversaries are not always his enemies…. A politician knows that the best way to be a winner is to make the other side feel it does not have to be a loser.

He had executed a difficult chore, valiantly if not handsomely, having managed to speak of Dirksen the way dead Senators are supposed to be spoken of and the way not easy for living Senators under the circumstances. He had described Dirksen as he should like himself to be described. When a Senator accepted as without flaw—say Robert Taft—dies, the tributes of his colleagues are always autobiographical; each finds in the great dead those particular traits it is his illusion that he possesses. In Dirksen’s case, that special form of praise which is self-praise was hard to summon up; the old man, perhaps from the frustration of being no longer the most important Republican here, had taken openly to selling those favors to businessmen the city customarily just gives away. He had ended flaunting vices he used at least to try to conceal; and Senators came to his funeral as members of the Jockey Club might have to Charlus’s. Only Mr. Nixon had attained the requisite style of self-identification; he has grown into the innocence of office.

Two days later, he seemed unexpectedly more secure at his Rose Garden reception for the Negro elected officials Professor Kenneth Clark had brought here for a political action seminar. What might have been thought of as an occasion for alarm turned out instead to be one especially comforting; being mainly Southerners, his visitors exercised the special Southern trick of seeming as though they were his hosts and he the uneasy guest they were making at home. Their ties, their coats, and their occasionally shiny gold spectacles were, in addition, a refutation of any fears that the dashiki is a badge of authority in the ghetto. Mr. Nixon could stand untroubled in a Washington still able to turn any messenger into a tourist.

This Issue

October 23, 1969