Jimmy Carter puts to sea in a nuclear submarine off the coast off Florida today with Adm. Hyman George Rickover, whom the President has often called one of the greatest influences on him during his formative years.
With all due respect, the President will have to move over on this one. He is not alone on this bench. If all the nuclear submariners in the Navy were asked the question, in my humble (but somewhat informed) opinion all, without exception, would give the same answer.
A bit of personal history: I, too, was a qualified nuclear submariner, a "graduate" of the Rickover academy. I consider myself an honest individual, not excessively changeable. Yet I must confess that the admiral is able to turn me into an intellectual yo-yo, praising him one moment, griping about him the next. He has had that effect on all of us. More than once I have felt, and occasionally loudly announced, "I don't have to take this deleted expletive from anybody!" - and gone right on taking it, and even, at the end, liking it.
I have heard a Chief of Naval Operations, in the full regalia of his own four stars, say, "You fellows may think I'm running the Navy, but you are wrong. I work for Rick, like everybody else."
At 77, Rickover has held the same job for 31 years and will probably rival his father, who worked in his own tailor shop until death at 93. Counting him time at Annapolis, he has served in the Navy continuously for 59 years, already a record exceeded only by one or two five-star military leaders of World War II.
More than once I have praised him to others, and to himself, while internally furious at the moral cowardice I was exhibiting. And a few times I have argued with him and won. Most of the time, I lost. Once I lost my cool, totally and disrespectfully, and then was ashamed as the irascible admiral as usual behaving contrary to all "normal" patterns, simply ignored my bad temper, quietly withheld his own famous one, and never mentioned the incident again. A Lesson Learned
How did it all begin? As with everything about Rickover, there is a story here, too.
Rickover graduated from Annapolis with the class of 1922. This was the class whose yearbook, the Lucky Bag, to its everlasting regret and embarrassment, perforated the inner border of an unnumbered page bearing the photograph and biography (carefully printed solo on the page; with nothing on the back) of the No. 2 man in the class, one Leonard Kaplan. The yearbook left him out of the index as well.
Kaplan, like Rickover, was of Jewish parentage, but this had nothing to do with his problem, even though that charge was later leveied. Kaplan was a recluse who concentrated on his studies and his midshipman duties. Rickover was much the same, although, unlike Kaplan, he had a roommate. Both young men were loners by temperament and philosophy. Rickover stood just over 100 in a large post-war class that graduated 539 members and failed 359, but Kaplan was in a neck-and-neck race for first place academically. In his manner of competing, since his only weapon was his academic excellence, he antagonized his classmates and, one must suspect, the Naval Academy faculty also. In short, he was a grind, a "cutthroat" in midshipman slang.
The unprecedented and vicious action in the yearbook had its effect on everyone; Kaplan, the Naval Academy superintendent, the yearbook editor-in-chief (who was reprimanded by the Navy Department), and the entire class of 1922, some of whom tried, too late, to prevent the indignity.
And on Rickover. Recognizing that Kaplan was at least partly to blame for his own difficulties, nevertheless Rickover saw in his classmate's public degradation the type of reaction he, too, must expect, be ever alert to guard against, if he followed the course which, even then, he was beginning to mark out for himself. Reading the Pinks
Rickover's headquarters are in Crystal City where, as before, his days are still spent interviewing prospective nuclear trainees, forcing his contractors ("vendors") to accomplish their contracts as agreed, telling the Navy how better to do its job, preparing and giving testimony before Congress.
On the Hill, Rickover is a master at presenting his point of view. Dressed in a conservative suit, rarely if ever in uniform, he speaks in a soft voice and with a puckish wit. He ends many of his sentences with a rising inflection, especially when delivering one of his epigrams. To reduce the bureaucracy, he testified a few years ago, he would "on a given Monday morning close off the fourth floor of the Pentagon and allow in only enough people to fill in the first three floors . . . That would be a good start."
In his office, he spends much of his time "reading the pinks."
The "pinks" are a Rickover control innovation. Every typist, under pain of instant dismissal, is required to insert a pink sheet, with suitable carbon, in the typewriter whenever anything is written on it. The pink sheets go to him, every day, and he reads them, every day. Anyone writing anything, even in inter-office memo, must prepare also for the possible call to explain it. Usually, of course, there is no call; but three months later something may come up harking back to it - and Rickover will either remember having read it, or will have something readily available to refresh his memory. And woe betide the unfortunate whose actions subsequently do not conform to his own pinks!
To the industrialist in his own personal empire, Rickover is ruthless. More than one general manager has found himself out of a job because he was "unresponsive" or "tolerated slipshod work."
Not that personal vindictiveness ever enters the picture, at least not from Rickover's view. His every action has always been rooted in a rationale of good engineering practice and the best interest of the American people, as he perceives them to be. Those who suffer, on the other hand, complain that once he has made up his mind, they can do nothing right and have very little time in which to try. The Interview
All officers who enter the nuclear program to this day are subjected to a personal interviews are famous throughout the Navy, though many must have been embellished over time and cocktails.
The interviewee sits in a wooden straight-backed chair with an inch sawed off the two front legs, so the story goes. (I have never seen this chair, if it in fact exists.) Rickover sits behind his desk, absently making notes on a pad of paper (true). Some member of the staff sits off to the side who later may have an opportunity to discuss the interview with the admiral (many times I've been in this spot). Rickover speaks softly, almost in a monotone, and asks questions sometimes far removed from engineering and nuclear physics. A favorite is, "How many books have you read this year?" The trap is ready to spring, for the next question is, "What were they?"
If the interviewee is unable to name a respectable percentage of the books he has claimed, he's in trouble. If he has prepared himself for this now well-anticipated situation, he has better also be conversant with the books he's cited, for he'll be asked about them - and nothing infuriates Rickover more than an attempt to bluff, or to manipulate him by what might be termed "studying" for the session with him.
In one famous instance, which may be apocryphal, a highly qualified midshipman, soon to be graduated from Annapolis near the top of his class, supposedly was asked if he was engaged to be married.
"Yes, sir, I am."
"As soon as I'm allowed to, sir. Right after graduation."
The admiral paused a moment, then announced he would accept the young man only he promised to delay his wedding for a year of unremitting study. This the lad refused to do. He had given his promise. He would not break it, nor ask his fiancee to release him. On this note the interview was abruptly terminated.
In this case, there was a happy ending. Many of Rickover's staff had previously interviewed the candidate - this was routine - and had been much impressed. The strongest possible expostulations were brought to bear, and the admiral finally accepted him. Next year. Why Not the Best?
Rickover himself had his troubles as he progressed through his naval career; service in surface ships and a master's in electrical engineering in the '20s, submarine training in 1930 and duty aboard subs until 1933, more surface ships in the late '30s and a stint at the Bureau of Ships in Washington from 1939 to 1945, then, in 1946, his entry into the nuclear propulsion program where he has remained since.
His reputation for getting things done through unremitting toil and a certain unorthodox style was established by the time he was a lieutenant.
Once, as assistant engineering officer of the battleship New Mexico in the '30s, he won an efficiency award for the ship, allegedly by restricting the number of light bulbs per compartment, turning down the heating system and putting limiting devices on the water lines. He was hated by most of his shipmates, but his captain liked it.
Later, when the battleships California and West Virginia were sunk at Pearl Harbor, Rickover begged, cajoled and fought for permission to clean them up rather than have them towed home for complete rebuilding. The Bureau of Ships, which had a lot on its mind in those days, finally gave in. Rickover did the impossible and was credited with saving millions of dollars and returning the ships to service early.
But for each success, enemies were made. In the '50s, the Navy tried to prevent Rickover's promotion to Rear Admiral. He was frozen out of a ceremony marking the first transpolar passage by the nuclear submarine Nautilus. The Navy reneged on its promise that Mrs. Rickover would sponsor the Triton, the biggest, most powerful nuclear sub at the time of its christening.
Rickover fought back, often using public opinion and powerful friends on the Hill to get his way.
As in the past, throughout his career, his defense, essentially, was a simple one. Because he was an engineer, his critics must attack his methods on a technological basis. No other attack had any validity. So he would know his subject, engineering, better than anyone, and get better results. He would make himself the best - and as for the rest, he would ignore it. As the best, no matter what else was said or done, ultimately he must win. Almost, always, he did.
Ultimately the Navy learned its lesson. When Rickover decided it was time he should be promoted to the four-star rank of full admiral, the Pentagon bowed deeply and did it immediately. 'My Hero'
Does Rickover have a sense of humor? Yes, certainly, but it is a poor second to his self-conceived obligation to do only good engineering. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a joke is intended or not. Sometimes (rarely) one can joke back at him.
Some years ago, a pretty secretary in his office who had a good voice was occasionally directed to seek out the operating submariners and sing "My Hero" to them. It was supposed to keep us from the "swelled head" syndrome - no danger of that around Rickover! She was always directed to remove her shoes before beginning. Wishing to keep her job, and not quite sure what to make of the whole thing, she memorized the song and did as told. Once when she did her stuff we all rolled up our pants legs to somewhere around the knees. That was the way we were when Rickover wandered in to watch the fun: one girl in stocking feet, half a dozen men with pants rolled up. Perhaps the Naval Academy slang vocabulary had not changed that much over the years. There appeared a most peculiar expression on his face, and that was the last time I, at least, was treated to "My Hero." The episode is filed away in my memory as one of the few we [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] Rickover's Revenge
To be an acceptable engineer, the acme of human aspiration in Rickover's view, is to be very onesided. One should not go around making speeches, nor write articles for publication, nor receive personal publicity, although he himself did all of these.
Once I agree to give a high school graduation address in Stonington, Conn., not far from my home. Learning of it, Rickover called the day before to ask me to join him in New York to ride with him to New London in his Navy sedan during the time of the scheduled ceremony. Very respectfully and with real regret, for this was the only time he ever made this suggestion to me, I declined, saying that at this late date I could not disappoint the school, its students, and their relatives and friends who would be present.He hung up the phone angrily, and I waited uneasily for several months to see what would come of it.
In due course, something did, so beautifully orchestrated that I should have anticipated it as soon as the situation began to form.
A Boy Scout group in Philadelphia asked the admiral commanding the Atlantic submarine force to send a nuclear submarine skipper to their city to address a large official dinner on a Saturday evening. ComSubLant, a famous submariner, designated me. I communicated with the sponsors in Philadelphia and began to compose my talk, which was about the psychic rewards of hard work in a difficult field for which one is well trained.
Friday before the dinner, after I had spent a week preparing my speech, I received a telephone call from Washington informing me that the first of a series of surprise nuclear inspections was to be held on my ship the following day, lasting well into Saturday evening.
ComSubLant was as upset as I was, but could only help me set up emergency measures, a substitute to go to my place. The Boy Scouts of Philadelphia never forgave me, nor did their local businessman sponsors. Saturday was a grim day, alleviated only by the facts that first, we passed the inspection handily, and second, it obviously had been made up not long previously and third, the improvising inspection team had to be there too, including Rickover. A 13-Sided Peg
Rickover, a compulsive, driven, fiercely competitive person, one of a kind, who relishes that role and will never give up. A genius at managing people, who has discovered the singular ability to establish perfection as commonplace among those working for him, or with him, so that the smallest hint of either pleasure or displeasure from him carries 50 times the weight coming from anyone else. A man who fully realizes his strength comes from his self-effacement (which is more apparent than real), his willingness to knuckle down with anyone, high or low, on a technical matter provided only that the other party is expert on the thing at issue (this is both apparent and completely true). A man adopt at flattering the Congress or the press, yet unusually susceptible to the most elementary flattery himself. A man self-serving to an unbelievable degree, devoid of appreciation of or sympathy for the differences in people, intent only on getting his job done as he and he alone conceives it should be done.
Some years ago, his wife died, and he has since remarried. There are signs that the new Mrs. Rickover is moderating his outlook on many things and will prove to be an altogether beneficent influence on his later years.
If he had turned his energies to less noble endeavors, Rickover might be remembered as a neurotic malcontent, always inveighing against superior powers or personages. Instead, he is a 13-sided peg fitting neatly into a 13-sided hole. The technological revolution ushered in by the atomic weapon gave him the opportunity to dirve toward the goal he has cherished since his midshipman days, formed, refined and reoriented many times since improvement of the Navy and its way of doing business. Of late he has again modified that goal, slightly. Now he would like to improve the way the country does its business.
Jimmy Carter was under him only a short time, yet considers him one of the greatest influences upon his life. Rickover, at 77, 15 years beyond the standard Navy retirement age, has a lot left in him still. Now, depending on what Carter has in mind, he may come much closer to achieving this new goal than even he could have thought possible a few years ago.