My father voted for Hoover in 1928. Then everything went down around his ears and he became a farm laborite. I grew out of that environment, and that's why I have a very suspicious streak in me.
AN OMEN: Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland has just finished telling the Millers' National Federation about grain price supports, and is hot-footing it for his limo parked outside the Capitol Hilton, when he is intercepted by a man in a red-and-white-check double-knit suit and white shoes.
"Mr. Secretary, I'm So-And-So," the man announces. "And I'm with THE MARGARINE DEAL."
"Ah yes, the margarine deal," Bergland repeats. You can almost see the grist mill wheels grinding in his head: wheat, soybeans, safflower oil, butterfat . . . MARGARINE???? He recovers well. "You've made an appointment with my secretary?" Bergland asks. "Good. Well, we'll see you then."
Ten minutes later he's back in his office, standing behind his desk and answering the phone. "Hi, Bob Bergland here. What can I do for you? Hmmmmm. I'm not quite sure how we got into this position, to be quite honest with you. But I'll have somebody get back to you."
Even as he talks on the phone, he pulls papers from his "in" basket, glances at them and then scrawls a left handed signature in felt-tip pen.
"This place survives on paper work," he says while waiting for somebody, somewhere to pick up a phone. "I have a rule: Never handle the same piece of paper more than once. If you do, it keeps coming back."
Bob - never Robert, absolutely never Robert Selmer - Bergland is essentially a Midwestern wheat farmer with sophistication, a guy as much at home running a combine as reading The Wall Street Journal, a bluegrass fan, an avid dancer, a 48-year-old man who got elected to Congress from Minnesota eight years ago because he didn't like the way farmers were being treated.
He knows the problems. He ran a 640-acre farm a few miles south of the Canadian border until he took over the department. He started a farmers' cooperative. "It's always boom or bust, feast or famine for the little guy," he says.
Then on Dec. 20 last year, Bergland was at home watching the Vikings on television when Jimmy Carter called to ask him to be Secretary of Agriculture.His father, Sam, an 82-year-old populist, told him it was "the dumbest thing in the world" to abandon Congress. A professor friend at the University of Minnesota rang up to ask: "What kind of trouble are you in now; the FBI was here poking into your business."
And Bob Bergland decided to give it a shot.
"This job is four years and then that's it," he says, with a kind of level-headed Midwestern farmer pragmatism that seems decidedly out of place in Washington. "You can't survive more than that in this business. But you can't build a real life around politics. There's too much compromise involved. I don't know what I'll be doing four years from now, but it won't be politics.
"I want to broaden the department, not just for political reasons, but for humanitarian reasons. I believe in the foodstamp program, and I'm hiring the best people to work on it. I decided to hire the department's biggest critics, because I figure if they can seriously criticize they know a lot about the problem.
"I know what it's like to be poor, because I represented one of the poorest districts in the country when I was in Congress. I shouldn't say this, but I think Earl Butz wanted to purify this place. He wanted to get it so that it would only have to deal with the large, mechanized agricultural businessman. I think that's wrong. The basic conservation of the family farm is critical to the basic well-being of the United States."
Bergland gets up at 5:30 a.m. in his Annandale townhouse (where his agricultural instincts are now focused on rose gardening) to read the newspapers: The Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Times. His wife, Helen, says he hates eating breakfast, so she leaves milk and eggs in the blender for him to whip up in the morning. By 6:45 he's in his limousine, where he reads the White House news summary and finishes off the papers. At 7:30 he's in the office drinking coffee; at 8:30 he holds a daily staff meeting. Then the visitors start.
One morning the nervous head of a farmers' cooperative has 15 minutes to ask Bergland to appear at the Farmland Annual Meeting in Kansas City. He's already committed on that day. Then there's half hour to meet the new chairman of the Chicago Board of Trade, who proclaims that what's good for the Chicago Grain Exchange is good for America.
"Well, we can't be pollyana-ish about this wheat business." Bergland says. (In the course of the day, he will use the word pollyanna-ish five times.) The three members of the board of trade are sitting on a brown leather couch in the office. Bergland is slumped down deeply in a green leather easy chair, rubbing the inside of his right palm with his right thumb. A secretary rushes in and whispers in his ear.
"I better take this," he says. "It's the boss."
He walks over to his very neat desk, remains standing and picks up the phone.
"Bob Bergland here. (Pause.) "Yes, ma'am."
Thirty seconds pass.
"Bob Bergland here. Yes, ma'am."
his eyebrows start to rise. "Bob Bergland here. Yes, ma'am." He covers the mouthpiece of the receiver and says to his visitors, "four layers of secretaries!"
The boss turns out to be some minor White House bureaucrat, who has undoubtedly instructed his secretary to simply say, "The White House calling."
"We have tentatively put a hold on the papers to go to the President," Bergland tells the lackey who's inquiring about pending sugar price supports. "In the last 10 days the sugar market has increased $2 a hundred.
Back to his visitors. "We can't be pollyanna-ish about these things," Bergland continues. "The wheat is out there. But everybody gripes. I keep telling my friends in Kansas: 'You guys lose you crops five or six times a year.' We can't be the world's garden, or the world's grain storage facility. We're not going to get bogged down in some little chicken war somewhere. We're taking a different attitude on foreign matters. But I tell you, if we lose some of our customers to Canada on wheat sales, I'm going to have my head handed to me on a political platter."
A secretary comes in to politely break up the meeting. As she escorts the board of trade members out of the room, Bergland starts stalking around the office and clipping his nails at the same time. A few minutes later a secretary brings in Gertrude Skinner, who's been named National Volunteer of the Year. She arrives with several bureaucrats and two photographers, who start jumping around the room and firing off hundreds of shots of Bergland and Skinner together. Even to this somewhat silly scence, Bergland brings a sense of interest and understanding and a gentle bit of hospitality. "A cup of hot coffee (he seems to be drinking coffee constantly) or a Coca-Cola?" he asks, and two minutes later sends the secretary packing for eight coffees. He begins talking with Skinner about his personal involvement in church-sponsored housing (Bergland attends St. Mark's Lutheran in Springfield every Sunday), and the importance of decent low-income housing.
"There is this general level of frustration among poor people," he says. "It's like being in jail, only is their own home."
"One half of the population of the U.S. is rural, and they suffer in silence. The only thing that gets them any attention is when they start robbing banks."
At noon, Bergland is scheduled to have lunch with 12 European journalists visiting the country. He checks with an aide before he leaves: "Did the Senate do anything yet? Any damage to our basic export policy?" On the way to the cafeteria, he talks of his love of farming.
"When I was on the farm, you could get on the tractor all day and think about things. There's so little time for that now. I get home at about 9 o'clock, and a lot of my time there is spent on homework: reading and preparing reports. I love to go out sailing overnight. It's the one things I can do to get away. I don't bowl, I don't golf. I can't stand TV. I grew up on the bank of a small river. I built a boat when I was 11. I guess I'm pretty handy with tools. I worked for a while in the carpentry business."
Bergland goes through the cafeteria line with the other USDA employees and the European journalists. He scoffs aloud at the GSI food, calls it "virtually inedible," sayd he's thinking of suing them over the food and adds: "I'd love to have a jury decide whether this stuff is edible." He drinks milk with lunch.
"You know, the world's population has doubled in my time," he tells the journalists. "Farm yeilds have triples and quadrupled. But we've also paved over the equivalent of the whole state of Ohio. Cities have expand onto flat land that is the world's best farmland. This is a nation founded by farmers. And I beleive in the small farm. Whether a small farm is more efficient than a big farm from an energy standpoint. I just don't know. Farm income is up to $100 billion in this country. Federal subsides are less than the day when we can end all exports subsidies."
And then some humor, answering a question:
"I've never never been out of the country, but I've been to California. Does that count?"
At 2 p.m., Bergland has a meeting with some European representatives of countries that participated in GATT, the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade. There's general discussion of export policies, and someone points out how well the French have managed the problem.
"Of course, the French government is part of the EEC, But it seems that every time it wants something it levies a tax for six months to get the others in line," says Bergland. At 3:15 he meets with several people from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to see how the nation's meteorological data can be made more useful to the farmer. As the men come in, Bergland lobs little celeophane packets of Georgia peanuts at them.
"I can't offer you a drink," he says. "So I'll offer you peanuts."
"Actually," he says later, "peanuts are very nutritious." When one of the men starts talking about cloud-seeding experiments, Bergland says, I'm not very big on snake oil."
Just as the NOAA officials are walking out of the office, Bergland's secretary rushes to say that the Vice President is on the line. He sinks down into his desk chair and fiddles with the reading glasses that are resting on his nose. "Yes sir, yes sir," he says to Mondale, and old mid-western political crony and a great proponent of Bergland's appointment. Bergland 's eyebrows are arching. He laughs a shallow, and you can tell that this is a serious political matter - a fact confirmes by the next call.
"Harold, what the hell is the story on the FHA (Farmers Home Amdinistration) director in Tennessee? I've got a call a senator from Tennessee on the matter."
He hangs up, buzzes his secretary and summons an aide."Do you know Alex wanted to keep him on?" he asks the aide, who has come hustling into the office.
"I don't know; some negotiation."
Back to the secretary: "Get me Sen. Sasser."
"Hello, Jim? Bob Bergland here. I just spoke to the Vice President and he said you have some questions about the state FHA director. So I'm at your beck and call. (Pause). They're dickering with him not only to get out of Tennessee but also out of government? This guy has raised money for the Republican Party in the state of Tennessee? Well, I will into this personally, and keep you posted with a blow-by-blow account of what's happening." (The man is now in the process of retiring).
Bergland hangs up the phone. He leans back in his chair and gets philosophical for a minute. Later that night he will have to attend a reception for one of his assistants and then the 23d Annual Sioux City Steak Dinner. He recognizes this as the grit of political life: the quick appearance; the pat on the back; the clever, impromptu speech.
"On the one hand, you're dealing with a lot of chit-chat," he says. "On the other, you've got incredibly sensitive matters to handle. Right now someone is ablut to come into my office about declassifying chat. That might seem very sensitive. We have these crop reports here that stay locked up in a vault until they're released. Sometimes I sit around and wonder how many people in this department have taken advantage of knowledge they're privy to."
Deputy Prime Minister Anthony of Australia enters the office, with several assistants. They have a brief meeting on wheat sales to the People's Republic of China. As he leaves, a secretary comes into the office with several messages.
"Sen. Abourezk's office has called several times," she says."Those men are still waiting in his office."
"I know they're waiting," says Bergland. "They've been waiting there since Inauguration day. They all want jobs. I don't blame them. But I don't have any jobs to give them. I don't think I'll return that call today."
He gets up from his desk and walks toward a closed door.
"You know," he says. "When you've worked your way up in the bureaucracy. You get some rewards. I've got my own private can right here. And right now, I'm gonna use it."