A key to Ronald Reagan’s personality was the devastating experience of being a child of an alcoholic parent. That experience burned into him patterns of behavior common to children of alcoholics—dislike and avoidance of controversy, fear of confrontation and, for many children of alcoholics, an obsession with order…
“Chaos” in the Trump White House has led to sensational reports in the media about the manner in which President Donald Trump deals with his personnel. This is a true story that can help you if your boss is like Donald Trump.
Though “conservative” Republicans like Paul Kengor and Craig Shirley have made careers memorializing the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, in 1980 many of us sensed that there was something about Ronald Reagan’s lack of experience and knowledge of foreign affairs that would lead to later problems. The President also had personal qualities that led to problems within the White House and lack of coordination between federal agencies.
In that respect, President Ronald Reagan was much like President Donald Trump.
In 1980, Reagan’s advisors created “Transition Teams” to assess all government agencies and I was appointed Chairman of the Transition Team for the National Endowment of the Humanities.
There weren’t many conservative Republicans in Academe—then or now—and few were living within commute of Washington, D.C. Since my employer, the conservative publisher Arlington House, covered my expenses, I was able to accept appointment to “the Transition” even though my combined salary at Arlington House and as an assistant professor of political science at the College of New Rochelle wasn’t sufficient to spend even a few days, not to mention weeks in Washington, D.C.
The Reagan Administration’s “Transition” was composed of appointees who were political conservatives, some going back as far as the 1952 Taft campaign and many had served on each of Reagan’s three attempts to become President. As “Political Directors” of a successful Presidential campaign, they would, in normal times, have a veto over political appointments and a choice of top assignments, if they chose to serve.
It became clear quite early, however, that Ronald Reagan’s Administration would not follow the normal practice. The Chief of Staff to his opponent, George H.W. Bush, was assigned to a team of three advisors to the President, and James Baker ultimately became Chief of Staff to the President. In other words, a moderate Republican, not known for conservative views, became the chief gate-keeper of the Office of the President.
A key to Ronald Reagan’s personality was the devastating experience of being a child of an alcoholic parent. That experience burned into him patterns of behavior common to children of alcoholics—dislike and avoidance of controversy, fear of confrontation and, for many children of alcoholics, an obsession with order.
Ronald Reagan disliked confrontation and thus, when confronted with egregious violations of his political philosophy by his appointees, he did nothing. Previous Presidents actively engaged in the selection of their top appointees right down to the assistant secretary level of government agencies. Dwight Eisenhower was known for taking a keen interest in mistakes made by his appointees and acted quickly to repair any damage that was done. When Nelson Rockefeller sent a short list of names of persons to Richard Nixon asking that he consider them for appointment to his Administration, Nixon met with each and personally evaluated their qualifications.
A similar list was sent to Ronald Reagan, but the President-Elect did not interview them nor did he play an active role in making appointments. I, myself, was advised to expect a call to meet with the President when nominated to an Assistant Secretary level position. That call never came. The only time I met the President-Elect was when James Baker and Ed Meese brought the President-Elect to a gathering of members of his Transition Teams where we were informed not to expect appointments in his Administration.
As a political scientist, I knew very well that philosopher kings are hard to find. But, I knew also about political patronage, and the persons who staffed the first few years of White House Personnel in the Reagan Administration were oblivious to the need to salt the Administration with conservatives. Margo Carlisle, a movement conservative and executive director of the Senate Steering Committee, told me, “They [Reagan’s men] are not conservatives.”
James Baker was a moderate Republican.
Michael Deaver had no permanent political views except loyalty to Ronald Reagan.
Edwin Meese, an attorney, brought to the White House his experience as a former prosecutor in the district attorney’s office of Alameda County, California.
Anyone looking at this lineup of White House talent would conclude that conservative philosophy wasn’t going to play an important role in the appointment process of Ronald Reagan’s White House.
Nevertheless, as the year 1981 was ushered in, the Reagan Administration was the only game in town and my 60s generation of Goldwater conservatives began to attempt to identify where in Ronald Reagan’s government we could best use our talents.
About this time, I was asked to appear on a panel with Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, at a meeting in New York of the Philadelphia Society. My presentation, published twenty-three years later in Modern Age in 2004 as “Origins and End of the New World Order,” dealt with foreign policy and American values. America’s religious traditions, I argued, tended to lead us into attempts to replace balance of power politics with a “New World Order” of international law and democratic evangelism that could make the United States a principal cause of disorder in international politics.
Norman Podhoretz and I were introduced by Frank Shakespeare, former director of USIA in the Nixon Administration, who gave a stirring introduction correctly identifying the importance of this convergence of so many conservatives at this one meeting of the Philadelphia Society. At earlier meetings of the Society, we were lucky if fifty to seventy-five people showed up. This meeting was a sell-out crowd, with several hundred people filling the ballroom of New York’s Essex House. Our panel was a good one, among the many held that day, but these folks were not there to hear Norman and me. They were there to get jobs in the Reagan Administration.
I was one of them.
After that panel presentation, Frank Shakespeare mentioned that I should seriously consider going after a job at USICA. USICA had been formed by transferring the Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural Affairs to an independent agency, USICA. The incumbent Associate Director for Education and Cultural Affairs at USICA under President Carter was Alice Ilchman who later became president of Wellesley College. Shakespeare thought that with my education and political credentials, as well as my service on the NEH transition team, I ought to have a leg up on that position.
As a political activist who had given up practical politics upon becoming a political theorist, I knew little about these things. Government service had not entered my mind since 1961 when I had a summer job as a GS-3 Clerk Typist at the General Services Administration.
But, Frank Shakespeare’s advice appealed to my ego and I began a campaign to get the White House Office of Presidential Personnel to submit my nomination to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. Shakespeare assured me that this was an important job, so important, he said, that I could expect to be interviewed personally by President Reagan. Shakespeare gave President Reagan too much credit: There was no interview by the President of me, nor of any sub-cabinet nominees in the entire Reagan Administration. President Reagan was simply ignorant of the nuts and bolts, day to day, workings of his government.
I appreciated that Frank Shakespeare thought I should seek an appointment at USICA. But, more hard-headed minds like Irving Kristol thought it would be best if I were to go after something a lower level appointment that didn’t require Senate confirmation. “You would be good,” Kristol said, “and it’s your due for an appointment as director of the education division of NEH.” In a chance meeting with Ed Rollins, I was advised to stay clear of Charles Z. Wick, Regan’s close friend rumored to be seeking the appointment of Director of USICA.
Irving Kristol and Ed Rollins were right.
As I looked more deeply into the matter, however, some problems appeared. A friend who served as a special assistant to the President in the Office of Presidential Personnel told me that when she heard that I wanted that job, she didn’t think I had a chance.
Frank Shakespeare wanted the documentary producer and former assistant to Richard Nixon, Bruce Herschenson, to be appointed Director of USICA. But, Herschenson wasn’t chosen. His problem and the problem many other qualified conservatives seeking Presidential appointments turned upon the character of White House personnel. In a philosophically driven administration, the head of an agency would have to share the President’s political philosophy. The Reagan Administration’s personnel shop, contrary to popular belief, was not philosophically driven. I remember Shakespeare’s dismay when he told me that a rumor had surfaced that Charles Z. Wick was interested in the job.
As it turned out, this was more than just rumor. Bob Carter, a District of Columbia Republican Party official, who headed up the Transition Team for the National Endowment of Arts had also served at the Inaugural Committee where Charles Z. Wick was co-chairman. Wick told Bob Carter that he was interested in having some information about NEH or NEA, was given the transition team reports, and decided that there wasn’t enough “action” for him in either of those two positions. So Bob Carter said, “Charlie, why don’t you take a look at USICA.”
Wick was not a political conservative, far from it, but his wife was Nancy Reagan’s closest friend. Wick graduated from the University of Michigan (B.M.) and Case Western Reserve University School of Law (J.D.). He was a member of the California and Ohio Bar Associations. He had been a pianist with one of the big bands when he was young, worked as an agent with a top talent agency in Hollywood. A less lawyer-like personality couldn’t be found unless the word “attorney” conjures up such adjectives as “flamboyant,” “ruthless,” “ill-tempered and “unstable.” Admittedly, Wick did have an artistic bent as seen in his production of a film titled, “Snow White and the Three Stooges.” Moreover, Charles Z. Wick was short—about 5’0″, and had a classic small man’s personality—rude, abusive to those under him, and, I later surmised, unstable.
In most presidential administrations a person with Charlie Wick’s resume wouldn’t stand a chance of any appointment. However, Wick had done loyal service on behalf of “the Governor” raising money for his presidential campaigns. When Reagan was asked by his advisors—Meese, Baker, and Deaver—not to appoint Wick to head up USICA, Reagan is reported to have said, “After what Charlie did for me, he can have anything he wants.” I can confirm that as I once confronted James Baker at a gathering telling him to “fire Charlie Wick.”
Baker responded, “You tell that to the President.”
Charles Z. Wick wanted to become head of USICA and that meant trouble for political conservatives.
For those of us conservative anti-Communists who studied American foreign policy during the Cold War, the “public diplomacy” of United States Information Agency (USIA) was extremely important.
That was where broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA) were transmitted via shortwave behind the Iron Curtain to the captive nations of East and Central Europe. That agency was in charge of all United States cultural centers and libraries throughout the world, and that agency presented daily press and information briefings to all U.S. embassies worldwide in a daily wire transmission called the “wireless file.” That agency also conducted programs that represented the United States to the world—intellectually, culturally, and artistically. For those of us raised on Richard Weaver’s maxim, “Ideas have consequences,” this agency had an important role representing the idea of America to the world.
For that reason, we conservatives ranked USICA very high on the list of U.S. government agencies where we wanted to serve. As I found out after accepting appointment to that position, Sen. William Fulbright thought so also. He summoned me to his office where he informed me that my position was the most important in the entire federal government!
A good foreign policy, if it is to be cohesive, must have similar minds at the National Security Council, Department of State, Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and USICA. The Administration of Ronald Reagan, however, had a NSC and State Department working against the U.S. Department of Defense under Caspar Weinberger and CIA Director, William Casey.
Constantine Menges’ important book, Inside the National Security Council, documents how U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and National Security Council Advisor Robert McFarlane and White House Chief of Staff, James Baker, colluded with one another to steer a softer foreign policy toward the Soviet Union than that advocated by CIA Director, William Casey, U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Casey, and Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeanne Kirkpatrick.
All that came later since, at the time I sought an appointment in the Reagan Administration, Richard V. Allen, for whom I had worked one summer at the Center for Strategic Studies, was Reagan’s first NSC Advisor. He called Charles Z. Wick and told him to pick me.
Nothing happened. Not relying solely on Dick Allen, I asked every conservative I knew to write to the White House on my behalf. But, still, nothing happened.
I called Dick Allen again, and he agreed to pressure Wick, once again, to hire me.
Only then did I receive a telephone call from Gilbert Robinson, Charlie Wick’s Deputy, and I was invited to meet Gil Robinson—not Charlie Wick—in Washington.
Gilbert Robinson was a New York “Rockefeller” Republican who did not bring a conservative philosophy nor administrative experience to USICA. Both, I realized after my first few weeks at USICA, were needed. After a series of firings of political appointees at USICA by Wick, including Philip Nicolaides, Kenneth Tomlinson, Leslie Lenkowsky and I, Wick’s Deputy, Gilbert Robinson was fired. Robinson understandably resented being fired by Wick and turned confessor to New York Times columnist, William Safire, who exposed Wick’s high crimes including illegal taping of telephone conversations, appointment of the children of Cabinet members, and the hiring of Wick’s cronies, including his piano teacher and his tennis coach.
Wick was what is called in politics “an accident waiting to happen,” and the fact that he was so close to Ronald Reagan exacerbated the likelihood that bad publicity would tar the President.
Wick wasn’t the only problem.
During preparations for the Inaugural, which Wick co-chaired, I learned from a former colleague at Arlington House Publishers who worked in the area where tickets that had been sold were kept in a walk-in safe, that May Jane Wick went into the safe and removed tickets. I presume those tickets were needed by Nancy Reagan, but were sold to political donors before she expressed her desires to distribute them to her friends. Hundreds of people arrived from all over the United States to attend Inaugural events only to be told that their tickets were nowhere to be found.
That was a problem that Washington’s media elite would have used to destroy the President’s popularity. Members of Congress thought so, too, and they decided an investigation of improprieties at the Inaugural Committee were required before Charles Z. Wick’s nomination to USICA could be taken up.
As matters transpired, worse things occurred. On March 30, 1981, an assassination of President Reagan was attempted.
I was teaching that day in class at the College of New Rochelle, a small Catholic college in Westchester County, New York, and I recall one of my Liberal faculty colleagues saying sympathetically, that “They shot him before he even had a chance.”
I think sorrow, upset, and a keen sense of loss were the universally felt experiences on that day—except at the U.S. Department of State. A friend, who was serving at State in a minor political appointment had the opportunity to observe what the career foreign service officers experienced. It wasn’t sadness. Some of State’s “officers” speculated about the physics and velocity of the bullets that struck the President; muted expression of interest about how seriously he was injured, and speculation about his successor’s policies.
As an observer of American national politics, I am aware that the best and the brightest don’t go into government service. You find four basic types of people employed by the federal government:
- Persons who want job-security;
- Persons who are “do-gooders”;
- Persons whose sexual orientation require civil service protection and
- A smaller, but potentially more powerful, group who are enthusiasts of big, redistributionist, government.
At the U.S. Department of State, Agency for International Development, Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Education, and many other agencies of the federal government, these latter types prevail in positions where they can influence public policy, unless closely supervised by political appointees.
Most are extremely intelligent and better educated than other federal government workers and come to government service with advanced degrees at prestige universities that, with the Progressive movement, have encouraged idealistic youth to pursue academic disciplines for which the only employers are local, state, and federal governments.
The influx of these key people in the federal government by the time Ronald Reagan was elected was certainly spurred by the personnel policies of the Kennedy Administration’s idealism—”Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty.
People for whom those appeals resonate were not happy with the election of Ronald Wilson Reagan.
At USICA, my tenure was made difficult by foreign service “officers” who placed a burden of proof on us. One senior executive, wife of Sen. Fulbright’s chief of staff, asked me to a meeting where she proposed that I endorse the decisions of her Directorate. I informed her that Ronald Reagan won the election, and since I am his surrogate, I will make all decisions.
We political appointees of the President of the United States had to “prove” our good intentions to those for whom a regular government salary was vested. This was especially the case in the Educational Affairs directorate where the remnants of Wilsonian idealism were alive and well and for whom the “Reagan people” were, literally, seen as the barbarians at the gate.
On reflection, that judgment wasn’t entirely wrong when applied to Charles Z. Wick.
Charles Z. Wick was a colossal, ignorant, abusive boor and many of the people he personally chose to work for him were simply unqualified. His choice for Voice of America director had no sense whatsoever of the purpose of VOA. In a meeting with National Security Advisor Dick Allen, the new VOA head displayed such total ignorance that Allen simply walked away shaking his head.
By June 1981, my own political appointment was still not finalized when I arrived in Washington for my first meeting at USICA. Wick was in California, and I was introduced to John “Jock” Shirley, a career foreign service “officer” who served as Acting Director of USICA until Wick could be confirmed.
Though Jock Shirley was a superior public executive, he represented the interests of the Foreign Service, not the President of the United States. A political appointee might have been brought in as “Acting” to hold things in place until Wick was confirmed, that that type of political thinking was never a high priority under Wick. Nevertheless, that was the condition of the agency at the time I was interviewed by a career public executive!
Political appointees have a special purpose in the order of Presidential Administrations. They represent the President of the United States who was elected by the people in a Presidential election. Their purpose is to administer government agencies and design new policies in keeping with the philosophy of government of the newly elected President. At USICA under Wick, there was a conscious blurring of identity between political and career executives. This put me, the one political conservative appointee at USICA, at a disadvantage because Wick didn’t understand this basic principle. He truly thought that the vast apparatus that he was to manage would simply, well, function on autopilot. He did not appreciate the need to put the President’s men—men who were philosophically compatible with the principles of the newly elected President—in all key position by means of the political appointment process.
In my presence, Wick referred to himself as a “moderate,” which was an honest statement, if shocking to those of us who had worked for the conservative Barry Goldwater and the conservative Ronald Reagan. Wick’s former piano teacher whom Wick hired to work at USICA told me that Wick had contributed $50,000 to the campaign for President of George McGovern in 1972. That was a seismic election that drove important “Neoconservatives” into the Republican Party. But, Wick supported a politician far to their Left, George McGovern.
After my first meeting at USICA, I returned to New York and waited for the call to join the Reagan Administration. Nothing happened for two months, but in April 1981—five months after the Presidential election—I was invited to meet with Wick himself.
My wife and I made the trip to Washington where we went to lunch with Wick. All was pleasant, but I suspect that Wick resented that I was there was because the President’s National Security Advisor, Richard Allen, had pressured Wick to do something.
I shall never forget that when lunch ended, Wick rose from his chair and assisted my wife into her jacket. Before he placed the coat in reach, he flipped the jacket’s label to see who marketed it.
Wick was checking who the designer was!
The application process for political appointees is intrusive and Wick could have asked for my financial forms that I had to submit. As a college teacher, I had no assets to speak of, no stocks nor bonds, just a salary and a vested retirement account with TIAA-CREF, the retirement fund established by Andrew Carnegie for teachers.
I must have passed the “designer test,” however, because in May 1981, I was told that I could start work on June 1—but I would be placed in a back room until I passed a full FBI field investigation. I didn’t think this would be a problem since I had studiously avoided doing something stupid like visiting the Soviet Union as a tourist. And, as a conservative with credentials going back to 1961, I was hardly likely to be a communist agent.
I returned to New York once again and waited another month until I got word to show up for work on June 1, 1981. I packed my car for the trip to D.C. where I would stay with friends for several weeks. That was seven months after Ronald Reagan’s election.
Delays in processing all the forms necessary for political appointees to take office is a real problem for new Presidential Administrations. A new president is elected, but it is not possible to clear people for work at the Assistant Secretary level until five, seven, or even twelve months after the election!
It is not difficult to know why this delay.
“Watergate,” and the special legislation that was generated by that scandal, slowed down the process by which a President may fill appointive positions.
All this is silly, of course. We will have crooks and thieves with us always. What is central, however, is that they be loyal to a President elected by the people of the United States. Moreover, we must ask ourselves, “Are we running a church or a country?”
How high a standard do we want to set for public service? How high can we set that standard without major ill-effects on government itself? Should the standards for political appointments be set so high that no normal, sane, person will seek appointive office?
The conservative attitude, founded on the theological principle of original sin, is that man is flawed, weak, and prone to sin. Man is easily tempted and knowingly yields to temptation. Man will break God’s laws, violated basic standards of morality, and man will violate the laws of the United States.
During the selection process for Presidential appointees, we have seen that any violation of law can terminate the confirmation of nominees who retain babysitters, and personal servants, without making payroll withholding deposits. Failure to report income for purposes of taxation, inside trading, conflicts of interest, membership in private clubs that discriminate against minorities, DUI convictions, are all standards that can cause a nomination to withdraw from consideration.
Frankly, based on my experience in government, all of the above are acceptable failures that are outweighed by loyalty to the President of the United States.
The object upon the election of a President should be to fill all political offices in good time, say, two months—not two years. If that means that some full field investigations have to be double, triple, or quadruple staffed at great cost, then so be it.
And if, after a full field investigation, somebody passes a FBI and OPM investigation that misses a serious misdeed, then we should take that as the price for having to deal with human beings. If they are above room temperature, they will have made mistakes and we should worry about their personal problems later.
If, on the other hand, they haven’t made mistakes, then we should not put them in public service because they are motivated by ideological or personal commitments that transcend the public interest of the United States.
For what purpose do the American people hold elections for a President anyway?
If it takes two years of painstaking research, reports, investigation, and press scrutiny before a new President can have his people in place, why not simply dispense with elections and allow the career bureaucrats run the government?
Mid-day on May 31, 1981, I loaded my car with books, a lamp, and a suitcase and drove one last time to the College of New Rochelle to pay my respect to two close faculty friends. One of them asked when I would come back and I replied, “I hope, never.”
So off I drove south on I-95 toward Washington, D.C. to take a presidential appointment at the United States International Communication Agency.
What I was to do or what waited for me, I had no idea.
I arrived at the USICA office—then at 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW—a block from the White House, was sworn in, had my fingerprints taken, and given an empty office. The agency’s nominee for Director, Charles Wick, was still in California, awaiting word that he could come to Washington for his confirmation hearings.
There wasn’t much for me to do in that empty office. I had no authority, but I did my best to use my skills as a teacher, researcher, and writer to acquire as much information as I could. This involved reading the briefing materials that had been compiled for political appointees. I then began to interview members of the Education bureau’s professional staff.
I also attended 8:00 am meetings with Wick’s Deputy Director and tried as best I could to put together a staff of dedicated political appointees. This wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be, since the other political appointees made no attempt to hire political appointees. They relied on the career staff and my requests to hire “politicals” raised eyebrows and “concerns.”
I moved quickly, however, and was able to retain a special assistant; staff assistant; director of educational programs; director of private sector programs; and director of libraries and culture centers.
In a very short time, I had a working, functioning, politically sound operation ready and able to take on all and any tasks required of the Associate Director for Educational and Cultural Affairs. By contrast, none of the other Associate Directors saw the need to staff their offices with reliable conservative political appointees.
As a result, when it dawned on Director Wick that he needed to do something in confidence that wouldn’t be leaked to the Washington Post, he turned to my staff for staff support.
As well he should. Charlie Wick was in deep doo-doo.
His nomination was being held up and he arrived in Washington in late June without knowing when he might be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. I assumed that he was confident that he would be confirmed, since Ronald Reagan wanted him in this job. But the bad odor he had created by the manner he treated subordinates caused me to doubt if he would make it through a rigorous confirmation process. I met with Wick regularly during those hot summer days in personal meetings and by telephone when he was in California.
In August 1981, prior to a presentation to the National Security Council that Wick had requested, Wick asked me and my staff to put together a proposal titled “Operation Truth.” I immediately called friends and former colleagues including a professional staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, an assistant to Dick Allen at the NSC, the Undersecretary of Defense, Fred Ikle, and a principal assistant to Ed Meese. We agreed to meet where I asked them to design a counter disinformation campaign. They responding within days and I submitted the proposal to Wick for his approval.
“Operation Truth” was born.
The President and the NSC loved it, and the president signed a presidential directive making it one of the first policies of the Reagan Administration. And I could take comfort that I had done my job. But it became obvious that Wick was a taker, not a giver. While away in California, Wick came up with the idea that there should be an initiative to the private sector. Guided by JFK’s phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Wick decided to ask top-level private sector leaders to volunteer services and material.
Wick meant by this “volunteerism” that he would “take” from the private sector what was needed to reduce his agency’s operating costs!
In other words, Wick intended to set up private sector committees to which the “best and brightest” in America would be asked to make a contribution. USICA had libraries, let’s have the best and brightest publishers tell us how to improve our library holdings. USICA has cultural centers, let’s have a private sector committee devoted to “Culture.”
I was very cautious about this idea since most people who make a living in books and culture were not friendly toward Ronald Reagan. And Wick should have been concerned that these committees would be perceived as opportunities to get something from government by those who volunteered their services. Since USICA was in the “advertising business,” as Wick often said, he had a meeting at which all the best and brightest advertising men from New York showed up as well as Jack Valenti, former LBJ special assistant, and Sonny Werblin, head of Madison Square Gardens. None were vetted for their conservative views.
Wick’s desire was to set up a broad range of committees to which prominent Americans contributed their knowledge and expertise. Since Wick could never articulate exactly what he meant, Wick’s Deputy didn’t understand what Wick was getting at. Wick turned on his Deputy shouting “What about my private sector committees?” I took the Deputy’s side and said, “Don’t worry Charlie, we’ll take care of it.” Wick then tore into me in full view of all present. “What do you mean? Why hasn’t this been done?”
I was embarrassed, of course, but I was also troubled since Wick had violated a basic rule of civility. If you have a problem with someone, you discuss it in private—later.
During a fire drill, Wick dressed down a clerk he saw outside the building holding a “Secret” folder. Technically that was a violation of security regulations, but the manner in which Wick acted called into question his emotional stability. On another occasion, the Associate Director for Administration took the brunt of Wick’s wrath. As we met early in the morning, Wick wanted to know what had been done about his suggestion of a few weeks previous. Wick found it hard to find the right words for what he wanted done, but ultimately it became clear that Wick wanted “Suggestion Boxes” placed near each of the elevators in the Agency building. To his credit, the Director for Administration said, “Mr. Wick, I joined the Reagan Administration to make a difference in policy, not to install suggestion boxes.” Wick immediately turned on him, shouting “If you want a job by noon today, those Suggestion Boxes better be installed.”
Wick was, quite simply, unstable, yet only Charles and Mary Jane Wicks would holiday with the Reagans at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Nevertheless, with my staff being the only politically reliable office in the building, I was called upon by Wick to provide the type of confidential work that he couldn’t allow his own Front Office staff to do. Wick was surrounded by career foreign service “officers.” Even his General Counsel was a career civil servant.
The head of Voice of America, seeking a “sound for the 80s” he told me, as he snapped his fingers to a rhythm only he could hear, was asked to work with a political appointee who was politically conservative and had communication experience.
Philip Nicolaides was asked to help keep the VOA director from doing anything more to rile the conservatives who, by now, had sized up Wick’s management of USICA and were calling for changes. Phil Nicolaides had worked on Jim Buckley’s successful campaign for the United States Senate, and had a very long record of campaign work going back to 1964. Joseph Sobran described Nicolaides as “a splendid singer, a gifted artist, a pianist, a linguist, a wit, all in all the most charming, entertaining, talented man most of his friends (including me) had ever met. “
I was told by a friend from New York who had worked on the staff of National Review, that Nicolaides was a good guy and that I could talk to him in confidence. We ultimately broke out some private time to be together and sized one another up. Nicolaides ventured to suggest that, maybe, something was terribly wrong at USICA. Trusting the recommendation of my friend, I told Nicolaides “Wick is the problem.” Nicolaides and I became fast friends, so seldom is honesty practiced within the federal government.
Unfortunately, Phil Nicolaides had been out of government service too long and forgot that anything with his name on it could be used against him. He made the mistake of composing a memorandum to the director of VOA—which he had been asked to do—on a computer that could be accessed by anyone in his office. Someone accessed the Nicolaides file that said, basically, that VOA has a political function to perform. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the memorandum and splashed a headline across the front page of the Washington Post—”VOA Official Politicizes Agency.”
In Washington, D.C., the word “politicize” is similar to the word “defile” and upon hearing that word grown Liberals weep, fearing the rise of Nazi and Fascist forces in America. Fortunately, the miscreant Nicolaides had been discovered lurking within that bastion of truth, objectivity and press freedom, the U.S. government’s Voice of America.
Politicizing the entire American government had been conducted robustly from FDR, through Harry Truman, through JFK, perfected by LBJ and refined to an art form by Richard Nixon. Upon becoming President Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford established a “Charter” at the Voice of America requiring that all reports emanating from that source would be “objective.” From that day forward, all VOA broadcasts would tell America’s story—”warts and all.” VOA reporters had nothing to fear by telling how bad America had become under Ronald Reagan. And they loved doing that.
Phil Nicolaides, sensing the danger in this anti-American bias of the Foreign Service, recommended that VOA should tell the good side of America before slamming her in VOA daily broadcasts. For that, Phil Nicolaides was forced to resign. That occurred during the second month of Wick’s tenure. Phil Nicolaides knew that the commitment of political Liberals to extend democracy to all parts of the world is not in the national interest of the United States and that telling a story that America intends to do just that is “ideological” and not representative of the American political tradition—at least until Woodrow Wilson put his hand to reshaping that tradition.
Phil Nicolaides tried to modify VOA thinking to conform to a traditional conservative view and paid for that with loss of his service in the Reagan Administration.
All was not well elsewhere in the Agency, particularly in the Bureau of Programs.
The head of the Directorate for Programs was a former Editor for the Christian Science Monitor and a Pulitzer Prize winner. As far as I could see, the new Director of Programs was a decent enough chap—for a Liberal journalist—but the wrong person to head up the Programs Bureau at USICA. Significantly, when he left USIA, he became George Shultz’s press spokesman at the Department of State.
The Programs Division at USIA is labor intensive—lots of employees and a small budget. One of the functions of this division is to choose Americans to represent the United States abroad in functions requested, supervised, and scheduled by our public affairs officers in American Embassies throughout the world.
The American Participants division of the Programs Bureau, called “AmParts,” was headed by a foreign service officer. That was mistake number one. But, if you have a nitwit or political naïf at the head of the Agency and at the head of the Bureau as your political appointee, you can expect problems to develop.
At first, I thought the suggestions from the Embassies as funneled to the Director’s office through the Programs Bureau were a joke. There were requests for all types of fauna and flora on the Left-wing of American political life, and nothing that reflected the interesting changes on the American political landscape as reflected in the presidential election of 1980. Even Wick’s Deputy thought this was a problem, and, in a meeting of the Bureau Directors, he suggested that the names of potential “AmParts” be circulated for review among the Bureau Directors.
The first few lists that I saw were testaments to serious problems in the bowels of the bureaucracy that the Programs Director should have taken care of himself by putting in a political appointee to screen recommendations before being sent up to the Director. Instead, these lists of names of prominent Americans to be invited to go abroad by USIA became formalized in a process that led ultimately to the forming of what apparently was a list of names of persons “proscribed” from representing the U.S. government during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In other words, a process had been put into motion that led to the formation of an “enemies” list—or, at least, that was how the media and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came to see the matter.
No one among us in that small room wanted anything like that to occur, but the Deputy Director had to compensate for the failure of the Programs Director to act politically. Consequently, the entire executive suite of political appointees at USIA became tainted.
Ultimately, the Acting Deputy Director of USIA, Leslie Lenkowsky, had to pay the supreme price for the Programs Director’s failure when he was denied confirmation for politicizing USIA and maintaining a “hit” list or list of enemies. Obviously, Lenkowsky had done no such thing. His predecessor’s naiveté allowed a career bureaucrat to maintain a list of names of people that political appointees suggested ought not to be programmed for USIA tours.
When the president of the United States has initiated an economic policy that the press has dubbed “Reaganomics,” and the whole world wants to know what that means, then USIA should send Paul Craig Roberts, Milton Friedman, and Jack Kemp abroad on tours aimed at letting people know what’s up. The public affairs officers of USIA, without exception, called for leading Keynesians to be invited for such tours. Lenkowsky was unlucky enough to be denied confirmation, but at least he had a chance to serve several months in an Acting capacity.
Wick could do, and did, anything he wanted in a madcap, almost deranged manner, simply because Ronald Reagan refused to allow anyone persuade him that Wick had to go.
Wick should never have been appointed and confirmed because of malfeasance at the Inaugural Committee. But, instead, every conservative of note was ultimately purged from USIA and Wick stayed in office until Ronald Reagan flew off to California eight years after taking office in 1981. I last saw Charlie Wick in the procession at Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
Had I known this, I might have been inclined not to help Wick, but, rather, seek to undo him. After a while, observant conservatives in the Reagan Administration got the message and began to sabotage their Liberal colleagues nominated by the White House. That was what my conservative friends successfully did at the Department of Education under U.S. Secretary of Education, Terrell Bell. Bell, too, was a ridiculous appointment for a conservative President to make, but appointed he was.
For my part, I did not leak Wick’s mistakes to the press. I had been a loyal Republican for many years in my home state of Pennsylvania and later in New York where I was an elected Committeeman, and I never sought to unseat obnoxious Republicans during those years. 1 would never have been able get my work done, there were so many.
Life is not perfect, and neither are political parties. You work with what you’ve got, play with the hand you’ve been given, and do your loyal best.
When Wick expressed consternation to me in June, 1981, that yet another hold had been put on his nomination, I offered to do what I could. I called a prominent Washington lobbyist, told him of the problem and asked his advice. He told me that his partner had gone to Senator Robert Byrd, (D-WVA) and asked that a hold be placed on Wick’s nomination.
Because Wick had promised him an appointment, with Senate confirmation, to the Board of Advisors of USIA, yet he wasn’t appointed.
The appointment was important to him because he wanted to prove to the world—and to himself—that he could be confirmed by the U.S. Senate and because the appointment would enable him to travel all over the world on official US government business. 1 assume that includes travel with a diplomatic passport. Not bad for a Washington lobbyist.
So I went to Wick and told him why this latest setback occurred and how it could be resolved—simply honor his promise.
By then, my loyal service to Wick should have endeared me to him and my tenure at USICA assured as long as I wanted. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
One day, I received a communication classified “Top Secret” issued by another government agency informing me about an issue that required a decision by Wick.
At a meeting of my full staff, I outlined what Wick should decide. When presented to him, Wick was indifferent and members of the Foreign Service appeared not to care. Top Foreign Service Officers aspire to become Ambassadors and the best way to achieve that goal is not to offend the foreign countries in which they serve.
With no support from Wick or his Foreign Service “officers,” I asked an assistant to Edwin Meese to take up the case with Meese. It was clear to me that if the wrong decision was made, a major scandal would embroil the President.
Meese’s assistant clearly sensed the danger of my request, and asked, “Do you want me to give this to Meese?” I said, “Yes.”
On Columbus Day, 1981, Wick asked me to meet with him. I came to his office and he said, “Did you go to the White House about this?” I admitted that I had done that. He immediately told me that I was fired.
Wick had been in a meeting with Ed Meese and at the end of the meeting, Meese asked what are you going to do about this? Wick realized that he had a “problem” and within an hour had resolved it, not by taking the action I recommended, but by firing the person who alerted the White House to a problem that was in development because Wick had not acted.
The Foreign Service was delighted, since I was clearly not on their side, but loyally represented the conservative President. Wick couldn’t have cared less since he was not a person who was cognizant of the dangers his inaction had fostered. And the staff that I had recruited were compelled to serve the balance of their terms at USICA under politically astute Bureau heads who did nothing to advance the President’s policies.
Here are some lessons you should learn from this account if you work for an irrational, self-centered boss who is incapable of being loyal to those who work for him.
- Don’t take the job;
- If you do take that job, stay as far away from the boss as physically possible;
- Prepare to leap to another position as soon as possible;
- If your boss engages in illegal activity, report that to the Board of Directors and prepare to be fired.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 J. William Fulbright Post-Senatorial Papers, University of Arkansas Libraries, Bishirjian, Richard J., 109:2
 Menges, Constantine C., Inside the National Security Council, The True Story of the Making and Unmaking of Reagan’s Foreign Policy, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1988.