The past two weeks were a great time for the lost art of Getting Fired. In the space of three heady afternoons, two Significant Public Figures were plain and simply dismissed by their superiors. They were not, in normal Washington-ese, "separated" or "riffed" or "layered." They were Fired. Sacked Axed. Sent Packing. Let Go. Canned.
Washington Redskin president Edward Bennett Williams quick-kicked George Allen, and Attorney General Griffin Bell presented U.S. Attorney David W. Marston with roller skates and a small push.
In a town where "you're fired" has traditionally borne as many euphemisms as s-e-x, the timing of these unrelated bloodletting captured our imagination. And while it may be a bit premature to label these tiny acorns a Trend, the actions of Bell and Williams could spark a Getting Fired Revival.
What makes these events doubly interesting is the reaction of Allen and Marston to the bad news. The coach and the cop, rather than dissolving in the welter of mutually self-serving quotes we've come to expect in these situations, lashed out at their former employers.
George Allen told the press that Williams was "deceitful," a "Jeykyll and Hyde" and accused him of negotiating in bad faith. Marston, for his part, cast his dismissal as part of a scheme between the White House and at least one Pennysylvania representative. Marston seemed determined to go out kicking and screaming.
No one's resignation "was accepted with great regret," and no one left "for the good of the organization." Full of acrimony and malice, these past few days may have changed the face of Getting Fired.
Some of us, of course have been Getting Fired for years, and without benefit of euphemism. Mere mortals, we took our pink slips with a tear and a gulp, while Joe Yeldell was being transferred and Spiro Agnew was resigning and sportscaster Klaus Wagner's "option was not being picked up."
Many of us had become accustomed to standing on the carpet, sand in our mouths, being cashiered. Unlike Walter Hickel, we were not allowed to resign. We were Fired. They Resigned. No one whose name appeared in the newspapers more than twice was Fired. They resigned, or someone in Public Affairs dreamt up another verb for what they were doing. Scratch the Saturday Night Massacre, and you're hard pressed to remember the last Significant Public Figure to unceremoniously get the boot.
It's Nov. 1, 1975, and James Schlesinger is numero uno at the Pentagon. Gerald R. Ford is president and the phone in Joe Laitin's house is ringing. Laitin, Schlesinger's press guy, has a reporter is telling him that Big Jim is history in the Defense Department. He tells Laitin that someone named Rumsfeld, at that time very influential, wants the job.
Laitin calls Schlesinger and, of course, the secretary has never heard of such a thing. Why, he's spent an hour and a half with Ford that very day, watching football and exchanging amenities. The president surely would have told him . . .
Schlesinger's phone rings later that evening. The White House informs the secretary that Ford would like to see him early the following morning. Joe Laitin comforts his boss: "Either it's World War III or he's going to fire you."
Over breakfast in the White House, Jerry Ford offers Schlesinger another job. That's a standard ploy, and Ford trumps it with great Midwestern sincerity. "I hate to see you resign," says the president of the United States.
"I think," says Schlesinger, "we ought to use simple language. I'm not resigning. You're firing me."
The lone Significant Public Figure in recent memory to be fired - and the man had to ask for it.
This fast-and-loose brand of Washington dismissal cuts across party lines, as Democratic Sen. George McGovern demonstrated during the last presidential campaign.
McGovern, who had agonized mightily - and public - over the dumping of Sen. Thomas Eagleton from his presidential ticket four years earlier, was miffed by a New York Times story linking him with the stop-Carter forces.
He summoned two of his aides home from Ohio, where they had been laboring, on their own time, for Rep. Morris Udall in that state's presidential primary.
Allan Baron, McGovern's executive assistant, and Jack Quinn, his legislative aide, arrived home just in time for Sunday brunch, and just in time to answer a reporter's question about how it felt to be unemployed. Somewhere over Pennyslvania. Baron and Quinn had been sacked by the senator, but not told by the senator.
Nobody got fired by Stansfield Turner, either. Turner, Jimmy Carter's old classmate and the current CIA director, recently trimmed his secret agent ranks with a two-sentence memo and some vintage Washington patois.
Turner "separated" 212 Company men with his terse handout, informing them that the director of "his designee" would mull over the separations with the CIA personnel director or "his designee." Not the sort of accountability you can take to the bank.
The director, a military man, strove diligently to remain civilized about the whole unfortunate business, but came unglued when his victims began phoning reporters. His rifftees, said Turner, were "cry babies" for going public with their story. All that, of course, was before David Marston, pre-George Allen.
More than a handful of the U.S. Government's 2.6 million employes fall into that rut, and roughly 19,000 of them are fired each year. That's a minuscle percentage, but it is 19,000 more dismissals than most people think.
A longtime observer of Washington's bureaucratic machinations notes that below the super-grade level in government, people are seldom fired for the obvious reason.
"Job descriptions are rewritten, complaints are made concerning 'attitude problems,' the worker's power and position are eroded - you hear everything but the boss say 'I don't like you a bit, and since I've been here longer, you're gone.'
"A number of bureaucrats have told me that the government even tries to prove they're crazy," says the observer. "The threat of psychiatric examination is held over them, so they claim, and that often succeeds in forcing them out of the office.
"Getting fired in this town is easy, if you're a little guy, a low-level guy," says the observer. "It's like dealing with a cop - if he wants to get you, he'll figure a way. Only thing you can do is outsmart him.
"I used to work for a guy who got rid of people with a little note that said, 'See me.' Get one of those in your mailbox, and you were finished.
"I came back from vacation one time, and there it was, sitting at the bottom of two week's mail. Just 'See me' and this guy's initials. I did the only thing I could do. I put the note in my pocket and never went near him. He's gone now, and I'm doing just fine."