Jay Solomon, head of the General Services Administration. has a miserable cold. He is tense, unhappy, Bewildered. He sits in a small cubicle off his office and, between deep coughs, says first that he doesn't want to talk about anything "right now."
"I'm determined to leave here in as helpful a manner as I possibly can and without a fight."
But then just one question is asked about the stories that the White House has worked quietly to remove him without telling Solomon -- and the floodgates open.
"They didn't have to go out looking for someone without telling me. I volunteered to leave. Why the hurry all of a sudden? I said all along I wanted to go in the spring. Sure they should be looking, but shouldn't I be consulted? I'm supposed to be a friend."
Six months ago, a relaxed Solomon sat back easily in his handsome office filled with low-slung modern furniture, enough paintings and sculpture to fill a small gallery, and photos of smiling President Carter and smiling Jay Solomon taken by Solomon's professional photographer wife, Rosalind.
Solomon, 57, was riding the crest of the scandal-and-corruption investigation then. The multi-billion-dollar scandal-ridden GSA was being properly policed and Solomon was praised by many. His lanky frame and long face with its horn-rimmed glasses filled TV's nightly news. Magazines and newspapers quoted him endlessly.
And, he insisted at that time, it was one big happy family. He had President Carter's complete backing. He was still taking trips with him. Oh, well, he had weathered some sticky times when he fired GSA Deputy Administrator Robert T. Griffin, close friend of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. -- with, it should be noted, the full support of Carter.
The roof fell. O'Neill was enraged that his friend had been treated "shabbily." O'Neill says he had been told by Solomon and White House aides there were problems but there was no "air of finality" that Griffin was leaving.
And then it appeared -- in the papers. Solomon insists he didn't leak it, but White House sources now are putting out that the administration blamed him for this. A bitter feud erupted between O'Neil and the White House -- ending only when Carter gave Griffin another job in the administration.
Solomon may have thought his problems were over then; with Griffin gone, he could finally run his own show. But others in official Washington believe that was just the beginning. This latest round -- with the White House sotto voce pushing to out Solomon early -- seems inexplicable to many. No matter how well they know that prower and intrigue is the name of the game -- despite any campaign platitudes of "openness" -- the Solomon handling, as one Democratic congressman said this week, "doesn't make any damn sense." An antagonistic view is that, in an act of presidential imperialism, the White House assumed it could get away with easing out Solomon before the press found out. But the "why" of it all remains a mystery.
A senatorial aide involved with GSA hearings says, "The word on the Hill is that Jay just got 'Abzugged.'"
And so, for the Solomons, life continues, but in limbo. They still go to the ballet and symphony. Rosalind Solomon continues with her photography (some of her works hang in the Museum of Modern Art). Solomon still plays tennis and racqut ball weekly, takes trips for the administration and, for public consumption, defends the president. The Solomons cling to a time-honored myth about Washington politics; somehow it has to be the men around him, not the president, who is responsible for the Big Freeze. And the president, as the denunciations build on the Hill, assures, for public consumption, that Solomon has his full support until the investigation machinery is fully in gear.
And yet, those close to Solomon say that Solomon is bitterly disappointed that the man he backed did not become GSA inspector general this week. Solomon worries that this will be a major blow to the ongoing investigations.
And, what is more,"Now that he's in a lame-duck status," said one Democratic congressman, "the investigations are just coming to a goddam halt. You know, as soon as the White House lets you know someone's a lame duck -- well you know how things are in this town, right?"
"Instead of discharging Solomon, the White House should be encouraging Jay to go on," fumed his fellow Tennessean. Democratic Sen. James R. Sasser. "Here's a crusader against fraud and corruption -- and he's operating under a cloud. The clear implication is they don't have the will to pursue these investigations. Let me say right now I think they do have that will -- but we're dealing with perceptions."
A Familiar Pattern
Perceptions. The perceptions of Jay Solomon -- rich Chattanooga shopping center developer-turned bureaucrat -- are many. Too naive for Washington politics. A do gooder businessman -- "straight arrow" is an oft-used phrase -- who came here as a reward for backing Carter, and got ground up in the sauage grinder of professional politics. Part of his story fits a familiar Washington pattern. "There is an awful lot of backstabbing and one-up-manship in every administration. That was true when I was there," says a friend of Solomon's who was in the Kennedy administration, John Seigenthaler, publisher of The Tennessean in Nashville. "I think Jay, on the periphery got victimized. He's probably too straight-arrow for an administration that seems no longer as straight as he is."
Solomon seemed a man who cared more for art than the art of politics. "His thoughts were on renovating old buildings and then, wham, he gets hit with fraud and corruption -- and ends up doing a super job," says a Hill friend.
Others in the administration tell another story. A man with a huge ego who leaked everything to the press and loved the personal credit. A man who bombarded the White House with phone calls. A man who, as one Hill source said, "every tiem something didn't come fast enough would say 'I don't have to take this, I can go back to Chattanooga.' "Jay's so open he comes out of emeetings and talks about it, That's pretty unsophisticated for Washington politics," says one source.
And, finally, a man who became a terminal embarrassment when he recently criticized Carter for not moving fast enough on appointing an inspector general.
As a White House aide said, when admitting they ahd been quietly searching for his successor, "He equates spending time with him with combating corruption. ... We're going to make it Jimmy Carter's issue and not Jay Solomon's."
In Chattanooga yesterday, Solomon offered up a small joke when some local Democrats nurmured that they sure would like to come to Washington and see his office. He grinned and said, "Well, you'd better hurry."
But there were no smiles a few days earlier as Solomon discussed his present, past and future. "The president gave me a letter that he supported all administrative actions I took. I took him at his word. See, I don't really know what happened to me. Last July I told him I'd had enough; that I wanted to go home. In October I reminded him again and said that I was thinking of somewhere around April. Now they're rushing me up. Carter said when he ran for president he was running on openness, efficiency, 'Let government be as good as its people. I'm going to root out fraud. I want to reorganize.' Where is the reorganization of GSA in the total picture?
"Maybe it's jealousy. Maybe, as they said, I'd taken too much of the fanfare. But God knows I tried to tie Carter into this.Just the other day I was dedicating a building and I said I couldn't give this building unless Carter gave it. It's his building, not mine. I do that sort of thing all over the country."
The simplest scenario about Solomon is that he was too much of a pain -- from the moment of Griffin's departure to Solomon's pressing the president to appoint an inspector general -- and that the White House needed O'Neill's powerful support much more than it needed Solomon.
The darkest scenario is that Solomon and the GSA investigation -- which has yielded 42 indictments and 27 guilty pleas for defrauding the government -- may, as one senator said, "be stepping on toes the administration doesn't want stepped on." Republican politicians have, predictably, made partisan hay over the Solomon affair -- although most will make murky inferences only off the record. Sen. Howard Baker, an as-yet-undeclared presidential contender, did say on the floor, "For following the president's instructions, Mr. Solomon is being dismissed. But first he is being allowed to twist slowly in the wind while the president's men decide how to handle a messy situation. There is a discomforting sense that we have seen this all before...."
And Solomon, himself. "Are we getting closer to someone on the hill?" He looks through his thick glasses, coughs again and says, "You want the honest? The real emes ? We don't know." He pauses and allows the first slight smile. "You know how 'emes ' is different from the truth?" (A visitor is under the impression that 'emes ' is Yiddish for 'truth.')
Solomon says, "No it's the real truth."
Going Full Circle
Solomon met his wife on a blind date at the Democratic National Convention in 1952, when Solomon was backing Estes Kefauver. In 1974, Solomon's son, Joel, brought a speaker to the first annual Estes Kefauver Memorial dinner in Chattanooga. His name? Jimmy Carter.
It was a full circle sort of story. Solomon, long active in Democratic politics, would be introduced to Carter through his own son and daughter, Linda, who actively campaigned for Carter. The first lady stayed overnight at their house during the campaign. The Solomons were dedicated fund-raisers.
By the 1970s Solomon was more than comfortably off, but it was a long road getting there. His father started in the movie business in 1912, when organ players accompanied silent movies. Jay worked at everything -- ushering, selling popcorn, being straight-man to stage-show comedians, evicting teen-agers from the trunks of cars who were trying to escape the drive-in theater movie fare. ("You could always tell by the way the back of the car hung low.")
In the late '60s, the Solomons sold the movie theater chain and began building shopping centers. At the time of his appointment, Solomon, who owned $900.000 worth of stock in his company, resigned as chairman of the shopping center subsidiary of Arlen Realty and Development Corp.
Solomon was long active in political and civic affairs and his wife spear-headed International Exchange programs in the South. His son, Joel, 24, laughs at the idea his father was too unsophisticated for Washington. "That's one of the keys to why he's been so successful. He's always been underestimated. When he was involved in business with people in New York he was just 'someone from Chattanooga,' but he showed them. He didn't know but one person on the Hill when he came to Washingto and now a lot are really upset about all this."
Last September, when asked if it was difficult as a Jew growing up in Chattanooga, Solomon said softly, "Yes." He offered no examples. His son does.
"It was worse when he was young, but even when I was growing up there were certain things. I went to a private school and everything was fine until I reached adolescence and then the parents started separating us. There were parents who wouldn't let me date their daughters; country clubs we couldn't go to. My dad just told me there were lots more important things than Chattanooga country clubs and girls that lived on Lookout Mountain.
"If anything, I think being Jewish really made my dad drive to succeed and prove himself and pushed us to help others. After years of being excluded from certain country clubs he gets invited all the time now and he just won't go. He gets a big kick as a member of the administration speaking to community groups where he had once not been so acceptable."
'We Feel Very Good'
Coming to Washington was the frosting on the cake after a rewarding business and civic career for the Solomons. Joel says his father "grew tremendously" in the GSA job and developed a broader look on life than "when he was a busy businessman."
His wife feels it is "irrelevant" to discuss how it all may end. "For a long time I've kind of hoped we'd end up in New York. Whatever happens, I feel very positive about the future. We feel very good about what Jay has done. I can only hope they will be committed to following through on the investigations." She is a savvv enough political wife to discuss none of their feelings, or to comment on any of the events of the past weeks. "It's not even worth commenting on. The issue of the scandal is what's important."
The hurt is in Solomon's eyes as he recalls how he was not invited to the White House for a ceremonial billsigning involving GSA. And how Sen. Sasser had to intercede with the White House to invite Solomon to go along with Carter on the trip late last year to Tennessee. The early, avid Carter supporters had already been excluded on a previous trip.
O'Neill "doesn't speak to me." Asked if he has any dealings with Charles Kirbo, who was appointed by Carter to advise on the GSA investigations, Solomon shook his head no.
"What in the hell am I doing wrong?" he mused. "We've changed so many practices. Brought far more oversight. Before, a GS-12 could dispense up to $5 million without any oversight. The guy who would order a repair was the one to inspect and the one to say it was completed.... They were selling without competitive bidding....
"There was the openness I tried to create.... I kept the people on the Hill informed and they appreciated it...."
Asked if he would ever run for office, Solomon said, "Maybe. But there's nothing to run for in Tennessee. Sasser is a great friend and Baker is up in '84 and in '84 I'd probably be too old."
He has one final thought on being too naive. "I've made a good living being nice. I've come out of this thing pretty good by being nice. I'd rather leave something like that to my children than leave something else. I'm not poor. When I leave, I'll go back and make a lot more money than ever before."