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The Culture of Reaganism

Power and insularity in the Reagan Administration.

Opulent and sheltered, Bohemian Grove may be a fitting symbol for the culture of the present Administration. In private life, several of Ronald Reagan's closest aides—and the President himself—frequented this most exclusive of exclusive clubs, nestled in the redwoods of northern California, and in public life many of them continue to do so. Attorney General William French Smith is a long-time member. Just six days after taking office. Secretary of State George Shultz, another regular visitor from his days at the Bechtel Corporation, retreated there, towing along West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Henry Kissinger, and World Bank president Tom Clausen. Bohemian Grove offers many pleasures to the barons of the business and government world: plush furnishings, free-flowing drink, freedom from prying eves, and the chance to trot around al fresco if the mood moves them (no women, of course, are allowed). But above all it offers a chance to belong.

For many top Reagan officials, holding high public office appears to be nothing more than another comfortable status symbol. Few of those we interviewed displayed any burning urge to public service, or even the sense of noblesse oblige that often accompanies great wealth. When we asked the heads of the domestic regulatory agencies what they hoped to accomplish in office, almost invariably they responded: streamline the agency, manage it more efficiently, reduce the burden on business. They did not talk about pursuing the statutory goals of their agencies, whether it be reducing death on the highway, keeping workers safe in the factory, or protecting communities from toxic waste dumps. Some seemed anxious to get the whole thing over with and move back to the private sector, where their newfound connections and credentials will prove lucrative. Former undersecretary of the Treasury Norman Ture, who was primarily a corporate consultant before entering government, has already taken that route; he's back in business on Connecticut Avenue. Lyn Nofzlger, until recently Reagan's in-house political adviser, is also a high-priced consultant. Mike Deaver, the White House deputy chief of staff and a man of previously modest means, has announced that he will follow. Many others complain about the cuts in salary they were forced to take when entering the government. A few months ago, Fred Fielding, who was a prosperous corporate lawyer before becoming the President's counsel, was treating a guest to lunch at the White House Mess. "What does a meal like this cost?" the guest wondered. "Oh," replied Fielding, "about $250,000 a year."

Reagan has gathered together a government of extraordinary wealth. About thirty of the top one hundred officials in the Administration are millionaires. At least twenty-two are multimillionaires. Little of this wealth is inherited. And little is a product of success in the industrial heartland of Republican lore. (See "How They Came By Their Millions," page 20.) Reagan himself made his first million through land speculation deals engineered by William French Smith in the late 1960s. The majority of Reagan's aides made their way selling or advising or serving as cogs in giant enterprises, rising up through the hierarchy. There are only a handful of individual entrepreneurs, and these have been relegated to lonely outposts like the Government Printing Office, the General Services Administration, and the Small Business Administration.

Not all of the top Reagan officials share these characteristics, of course. Some are ideologues come to Washington to do battle with big government or with fuzzy-headed advocates of detente. A few are academics who look on Washington as a chance to test their novel political and economic theories. But the governing culture of the Reagan Administration is a corporate culture—acutely sensitive to hierarchy, uninterested in (and generally distrustful of) public opinion, secretive, and deeply skeptical about all functions of the government that impinge on the prerogatives of private business. It is a culture that breeds decision-making behind closed doors, and that tends to reduce conditions of poverty, unemployment, and other unpleasant social realities to distant abstractions.

In his analysis of corporate culture. The Gamesman, Michael Maccoby wrote that few of the hundreds of corporate managers he interviewed "mentioned helping other people as a goal in their lives." Maccoby concluded that the very process of corporate advancement made managers remote from the problems of others. "The process of bending one's will to corporate goals and moving up the hierarchy leads to meanness, emotional stinginess, but not full-blown sadism," he wrote. "Careerism demands detachment. … The process of detachment as it occurs in the corporate career builds a shell around the heart."

Many Reagan Administration officials detach themselves from the "product" of their actions—increased hardship for the very poor, for example—by aggressively explaining those problems away. The President regularly retorts that his program hasn't actually hurt anyone. Martin Anderson, the President's original domestic adviser, once declared that poverty had been "virtually wiped out in the U.S." The new Census Bureau figures, showing that the number of Americans living in poverty in 1981 was the highest since 1967, the early days of the Great Society, probably would not change Anderson's mind. As Maccoby wrote: "The managers made no effort to learn the social/human effects of their actions in the United States and the rest of the world. So long as they remain unaware and unrelated, they avoid having to accept responsibility."

Thus can Ford B. Ford, chief of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and a former management consultant, lament the recent upsurge in mining deaths ("This has been terrible," he told Business Week), and then continue to cut back mine inspections. Similarly, OSHA director Thorne Auchter, a former construction company executive with no background in the science of occupational health, remains ignorant of the field while in office. "I'm not a scientist," he told us. "I'm a manager and regulator." One high OSHA official said: "Auchter does not want to understand [occupational health]. It's a nuisance to him. It's time-consuming. … His tolerance for scientific discussion … is very low." We received a glimpse of that attitude when we asked Auchter what he thought of an estimate prepared by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which linked up to 38 percent of all U.S. cancer cases to occupational exposure—a figure that some people see as an argument for stringent OSHA standards. The data is "probably very soft," he replied. "It's an estimate, I'm sure there are others." When we pressed a bit further, he acknowledged that he had not read the report. 

Before Attorney General Smith came to Washington, he sat on the board of the Pacific Lighting Corporation, which owned an agricultural subsidiary called Blue Goose. Blue Goose relied heavily on illegal aliens for citrus harvesting outside Phoenix. According to Don Devereaux, who organized farm workers in that area, conditions at Blue Goose were "terrible." Blue Goose, said Devereaux, "used almost entirely Mexican nationals [as workers] who had to live on the ground without housing, toilets, or drinking water. And the pay was substantially less than minimum wage."

While Smith was a director. Pacific Lighting took Devereaux and several other organizers to court for obstructing Blue Goose's operations by publicizing the workers' plight. During his 1981 confirmation hearing. Smith maintained that the employment practices of Blue Goose "to the best of my recollection did not come to my attention." One must assume that Smith was telling the truth. Impoverished illegal aliens sleeping and living in open fields without sanitation or drinking water is not the sort of thing that gets discussed at Bohemian Grove. For a man like Smith, a rule of thumb is never to venture too far from the numbers in the annual report.

There is a certain safety in numbers—particularly numbers of dollars, which can serve to blur the realities of official action. The Administration's requirement that health and safety regulations pass a cost-benefit test—in which the costs to industry are invariably accorded greater weight than the difficult to-quantify but tangible benefits to society (such as reduced death or injury)—is one example. Federal Trade Commission chairman James C. Miller in, a long-time opponent of federal regulation, has advocated the use of personal protective equipment, such as respirators, as a substitute for engineering controls that remove pollutants from the workplace. Workers and industrial hygienists have argued that respirators, though cheaper for industry, are extremely uncomfortable—so much so that workers often remove them—and are considerably less effective in practice than in laboratory tests. But even a visit to a coke oven did not change Miller's mind. "Is it a fair statement to say the coke oven workers do not wear respirators and do not want to?" Miller was asked during a 1976 OSHA proceeding. He replied: "On our visit. Dr. Fair emphasized that in the summer it is very hot and it is very uncomfortable wearing these things." (Miller himself wore the respirator only "10 or 20 percent" of the time.) Questioned about the discomfort of the respirators, he later remarked: "Perhaps we should rename the agency Occupational Safety, Health and Comfort Administration." 

Anne Gorsuch, the tight-lipped administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, demonstrates another facet of this culture, a mean-spirited (and often misplaced) Horatio Alger ethic. Maccoby found that these feelings are not unusual in the corporate world: "Many managers—probably the majority—would be just as happy if all the unneeded people disappeared. … In no discussion with corporate managers have I found any serious consideration that the same factors favoring their success may make it harder for others outside the corporate system to live their lives."

When Anne Gorsuch was a state legislator in Colorado, she led a bitter and ultimately successful fight to eliminate the Colorado Commission on Women. Long after the struggle was over, Josie Heath, who had directed the commission, said: "She sat there and told us any woman worth her salt doesn't need the commission; she could make it on her own just like she [Gorsuch] did. But she came from a well-to-do family. All the doors were opened for her. She didn't make it on her own."

These traits exert a two-fold influence. First is a pervasive, though unstated, belief that the poor are poor because they deserve to be. (See "Ideologies of Survival," by Robert B. Reich, TNR, September 20 & 27.) One House environmental aide who has met with Gorsuch said, "She's got a marketplace mentality: the strong will survive, the rich will survive, and the poor will suffer like they should." From the President (to whom the help wanted ads are daily evidence of sloth among the unemployed) to David Stockman (who provided a battle cry for the Administration in his famous rejection of entitlements) the Reagan culture places a premium on toughness, on what many members of the Administration would call finally coming to grips with the way the world works—a premium, in other words, on recognizing that certain people succeed because they are better, and that others lag behind, living off the dole and draining away money from investors who could take chances, make fortunes, and reinvigorate the economy. Central to this argument is the unshakable confidence of those on top that the system which produced their success must work.

This vision is pervasive among Reagan's top aides, most of whom lack personal experience of the problems they are now legally required to address. Neither William French Smith nor his assistant attorney general for civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, a fellow millionaire and corporate superlawyer, has any discernible personal experience with discrimination, even at second hand. Reynolds, scion of a politically connected and wealthy family (his mother was a DuPont), came to his job not only without personal experience, but also with no background in civil rights law and no particular interest in the issue.

"There is no discrimination in Palm Springs," said Robert Plotkin, a career attorney who quit the division after Reynolds's confirmation. Erwin Griswold, the former solicitor general in the Nixon Administration who recommended Reynolds for a different Justice Department post, said: "1 don't think he has very broad experience in civil rights matters. But then stop and think about it for a moment: do you think they [the Reagan Administration] are going to appoint someone with extensive civil rights experience to head that division?" Reynolds has enraged civil rights organizations not only through his broad-scale shifts in government policies, but also through his pronouncements downplaying the problem of discrimination.

Who in the Administration is available to temper this imprudent official? Certainly not Smith, who regularly rejects criticism of his civil rights policies (though he has steadfastly refused to resign from the California Club in Los Angeles, which admits neither women nor blacks). Certainly not Reagan, whose gubernatorial campaign speeches contained stock condemnations of those who turned city streets into "jungle paths" after dark, and who himself sprang the Administration's most damaging civil rights blunder when he decided the government should grant taxexempt status to schools that racially discriminate.

Indeed, insularity persists throughout the Administration. Robert Nimmo, who has just resigned as veterans Administrator, is a World War Il-era veteran and former California state legislator who accused Jane Fonda of "treason" for her opposition to the Vietnam War, and alienated Vietnam vets almost immediately upon taking office by characterizing the skin ailment associated with Agent Orange exposure as little more than "teen-age acne." John Block, who ran a huge modern farm, has been pointedly insensitive to the problems of the dwindling family farm, and also dismantled the department's nutritional efforts, whether aimed at middle-class consumers or at the poor. During his confirmation hearing last year. Block said, "I know they are not the same, but hogs are just like people. You can provide protein and grain to a hog and he will balance his ration. … People are surely as smart as hogs." From such a world view, it is only a short step to labeling ketchup a vegetable.

Insularity is at the heart of a second trait in the Reagan culture: the search for personal luxury in an era of cutbacks. Most of Reagan's aides have failed to discern that the luxuries they enjoyed in the corporate world might cause a stir when enjoyed at public expense—especially during a time when the President was asking poor children to reduce the portions of their school lunches.

CIA director William Casey summed up the Administration's apparent attitude when we asked him why he had kept personal control of his investments. His immediate predecessors, including George Bush, had put their holdings in blind trusts, fearing that the vast quantities of classified information they received would inevitably entangle them in conflicts of interest. "I don't see why I should be picked on," Casey said indignantly. "People have said just because I might get a lot of information I could use [I should establish a blind trust]; well, that isn't the standard. The whole Congress gets a lot of information, loads of people, many people in the CIA get a lot of information. 

Reagan's old friend, Charles Z. Wick, the former bandleader who is now director of the International Communication Agency, declared early on that economically pressed Americans enjoyed watching the extravagant Washington style of the Reagan Administration, much as Depression-era Americans flocked to gala Hollywood openings. During the summer of 1981, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (another multimillionaire) took his family to Bar Harbor at government expense—five times, at a cost of about $20,000. To address a business group. Commerce Secretary Baldrige chartered a flight to Tucson at a cost to taxpayers of $11,243. Veterans Administrator Nimmo spent almost $50,000 to redecorate his office and the rest of the tenth floor of the V.A. building. And until the press caught wind of it, Nimmo had himself driven to work by a chauffeur, running up an overtime tab of almost $10,000. His predecessor, a triple amputee wounded in Vietnam, drove himself to work.

Nimmo was not alone. The Treasury Department spent $58,196 on chauffeur overtime in 1981, twice as much as in 1980. Drew Lewis and his deputy at Transportation spent $38,125 on overtime, half again as much as in 1980. (The lunches of Lewis and the other top officials at DOT are cooked by six members of the Coast Guard at an annual cost of $110,000.)

Nor was Nimmo the only one to order expensive office redecorations, According to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Better Government Association, William French Smith spent over $4,000 to build himself a second private dining room. Baldrige spent over $118,000 to touch up his office. Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman Nancy Harvey Steorts, who received unwelcome publicity for redecorating her office when budget cuts were forcing the agency to close half of its regional offices, told us the improvements were necessary, in part, because there were "bloodstains" on the wall. 

These damaging symbols demonstrate how difficult the transition to public life has been for many of Reagan's chosen. Aloof and accustomed to the trappings of boardrooms, these men and women have found themselves thrown into a spotlight and told that their responsibility is to the broader public. Together they have rebelled. Reagan Administration officials cooperate with Congress as they might with stockholders, giving information grudgingly. But they seem to believe the public has no more right to information than it did from their former firms. That mood permeates the Administration, from its attempts to weaken the Freedom of Information Act to its strengthening of classification procedures. 

On a personal level, the resistance to disclosing information is striking. While overseeing the President's regulatory review program at OMB in 1981, James Miller exercised a virtual veto over proposed regulations, but refused to keep a log of his outside meetings. Only after persistent inquiry by a Congressional oversight committee did Miller disclose his meetings in early 1981. They included the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the American Mining Congress, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, General Motors, Ford, Atlantic Richfield, the Business Roundtable, and International Paper. Many of the meetings came shortly before White House actions on regulations that affected the companies. Miller's successor at OMB, Christopher DeMuth, told us that a requirement that he, like regulatory officials, keep a log would be "very, very burdensome." Partly for this reason, the Congressional Research Service has condemned the new regulatory review process for lacking "safeguards against secret, undisclosed and unreviewable contacts by governmental and non-governmental interests seeking to influence the substance of agency actions." 

Perhaps these officials are taking their cue from a President who, as Governor, denounced the Sacramento press corps in 1970 for "demean[ing] itself a little by engaging in invasion of privacy." The press had just revealed that despite his hefty income and heftier assets. Governor Reagan paid no state income taxes that year. It should scarcely be surprising, then, that President Reagan is considering a proposal to eliminate the financial disclosure forms that top government appointees are required to fill out each year. The thread that runs through these examples is an apparent belief that the public has no right to know. Sometimes this is made explicit, as when the President told a press conference that the American people knew all they needed to know about Alexander Haig's departure. At other times it is implicit, as in policies like the Administration's desire to restrict the Freedom of Information Act.

In either case, this exclusionary ethic is at the heart of the Reagan culture. It harkens back to the search for status; much of Bohemian Grove's allure, after all, is that not everyone can get in. Three years ago, no less a political commentator than Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote, "The problem is that the Republican Party has not articulated any inclusive vision of the public good that reflects concern for the well-being of the whole community." In the hands of Ronald Reagan's many men and few women, this problem has reached a new refinement. In their economic and regulatory policies, in their insularity, and above all in their persistent abstraction and denial of human suffering, they have propagated "a vision of the public good" that requires the exclusion of the broad segment of the public whose experience is unlike their own.

This article originally ran in the October 25, 1982, issue of the magazine.