At the windup of the Ford administration toward the end of 1976, I asked then Treasury secretary William E. Simon if it were true that he would run for the Senate from his native state of New Jersey. His response was clear. "I would never want to be one of a hundred of anything," he snapped.
It was this sort of arrogance and egomania -- nothing to do with ideology -- that helped push Simon out of a slot in the Ronald Reagan cabinet, a position of power that he desperately wanted and lobbied hard to get. In four years in Washington under Nixon and Ford, first as energy czar, then in Treasury, Simon left behind a host of disaffected Republican colleagues, not the least of whom is former President Ford.
His detractors contend that Simon was shallow and inflexible on domestic economic policy, bungled his assignments on international economic issues and messed up the administration of the Treasury department. Never diplomatic, Simon once came back from Iran to announce that the shah was "a nut".
In the last year or so of the Ford administration, the relationship between Simon and Ford began to deteriorate. The policy differences became painfully obvious. For example, in 1975, Simon wanted to let an antirecession tax cut expire, even though it would have been the equivalent of a tax increase; Ford listened to other advisers and extended the tax cut, ignoring Simon's threat to resign -- leaked to columnists Evans and Novak -- if he didn't get his way (He stayed on.)
Beyond the substantive differences, "Ford didn't like Bill's style," says one who knew both men. It didn't escape notice at the Ford White House in 1976 that Simon -- who long has had vice presidential ambitions -- began to make zealous public statements closer to Reagan's conservative philosophy than to Ford's.
As Treasury secretary, Simon simply couldn't get along with his peers, starting with Roy Ash, director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was the proverbial bull in a china shop. Underlinings at the Treasury came to fear his temper tantrums. He would buzz a subordinate and bark: "Get in here!"
It is true there is a less abrasive side to Simon that he conceals from the public: He reportedly does nice things for his friends. When former Treasury undersecretary Edwin Yeo III had problems last year at the time of his separation from a Chicago bank, Simon intervened to get him a sort of golden handshake.
In office, Simon's ego demanded a retinue of attendants, including large numbers of Secret Service agents -- courtly trappings that his successors cut down or did without. When he went to Moscow as a lame duck in November 1976 on a trip that cost the taxpayers $131,500, he took a party of 42, including his wife and two children.
And it took a gusty performance by former State Department protocol officer Shirley Temple Black to force Simon to give back to the U.S. government four gifts from foreign governments that the State Department ruled he was not entitled to keep.
What hurt Simon with Reagan was the appearance of inspired stories designed to push the president-elect into a few early Cabinet choices -- of course including Simon -- before the opposition could mount an effective attack. A Nov. 14 column by Evans and Novak had Simons telling "friend" he had the Treasury job sewed up, although he had been mixed for his first choice, Defense. "Bill took it as a given that -- having worked hard for Reagan -- he could name his slot," says a Reagan adviser.
Simon' bitterness is revealed openly -- guess where? -- in a Dec. 1 Evans-Novak column, a classic of a kind, that denounced "backroom chicanery" among key Senators who had "sharpened . . . knives" in a "vicious backstairs campaign" which "dovetailed with bad-mouthing from old enemies in the Ford administration" to defeat the Simon candidacy.
Among others on the Hill, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), soon to be chairman of the Finance Committee has a negative view of Simon and passed it on to the Reagan camp. But Evans and Novak make it sound sinister.
There is, perhaps, a broader significance to this chapter of the Bill Simon story. It may be the most important piece of evidence yet that the influence of the "kitchen cabinet," made up of Reagan's big business friends, is less than has been touted. We have it on the authority of Evans-Novak that Simon was "a folk hero" to the millionaires surrounding Reagan "for his unadorned free enterprise gospel preached in his best-selling 'A Time for Truth.'"
The kitchen cabinet's failure to secure a cabinet post for Simon isn't to suggest, at all, that industrial magnate Justin Dart, former Diner's Club board chairman Alfred S. Bloomingdale and others of the Reagan kitchen cabinet will have no influence on him as president -- far from it. They figure to be pulling many a lever in the future.
But running the government is not just like running General Motors, which is the parallel Bloomingdale laid out for Washington Post reporter Martin Schram. A Treasury secretary is not a prince of industry who issues commands. "What Simon never understood," says an influential Republican, "was that a secretary of Treasury is supposed to be a conciliator. That would not be Bill Simon." To give Reagan proper credit, he got the message, understood it and acted on it.