On Jan. 21, 1981, Joe Laitin drove home from the Treasury Department and informed his wife of a historic event. "Christine," he said calmly, "I've been fired."
"Well," she replied, "it's about time."
It certainly was.
Officially, Joe Laitin was assistant secretary of the Treasury for public affairs under President Carter. Unofficially, he was a mini-legend as Washington's quintessential survivor.
He'd served five chief executives: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter. He narrowly escaped LBJ's ire, H.R. Haldeman's hardhall, the 1979 Cabinet purge and a succession of bosses who were gone with the political winds. Not Laitin, the crafty old press secretary. Every time during his "18 swinging years," he landed with barely a scratch and most of his hair. Every time, his wife said Joe, maybe now won't you quit?
"But I'm a public service junkie," he sighed.
He is also a player of palace intrigue, a wonderful gossip and a fine fighter when provoked. He often was. His jobs have included press secretary to the budget director, press deputy at the White House, spokesman at the Federal Aviation Administration, spots at Treasury and Devense. He likes the press, and most of the press like him.
One late night at the Carter White House, some staffers were pulling together a statement to be released by the Treasury Department. They finished about midnight. "Okay," said Randy Kau, executive assistant to treasury Secretary G. William Miller, "I'd like a copy of this to show to Joe Laitin."
"Is he still here?" asked a startled White House aide. "I thought we told Miller to get rid of him."
They had.(Laitin was highly suspect as a leaker.)
But no use. He survived that, and the aide's comment as well. Matter of fact, he soon picked it up off his intelligence network.
"He had a grapevine par excellence," says Robert Mayo, the Nixon budget director who lasted just 18 months, "so he served as my early warning system. I learned to rely on his nose."
It's a nose the current Republicans feel they don't need. "All political appointees were asked to resign," says a Treasury spokesman. "Joe was simply told, and he said, 'Fine.'"
"Let me put it this way," says Laitin. A dramatic pause. He puffs on his cigar, settles into his chair, tugs at his three-piece suit and squints his eyes. "I know enough about things that if I really wanted to survive, I could have gotten somebody to bury me in the wood work of the bureaucracy. But I just decided not to. Maybe it's about time I went out to the private sector."
You can find Laitin these days at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank. He's not a conservative (in fact, he's a Democrat), and he's more technician than thinker, but AEI president William Baroody Jr. is a friend. He's loaning him an offive, a typewriter and, most important, a phone. Laitin is white-haired, round-bellied and 66. He wants no pity. Just a job.
This past summer, he wanted no interviews, "I'd be a space-filler right now," he said shrewdly. "The last thing I want to be is a hot-weather story." But now he's readily available, as he puts, it, for "weddings, bar mitzvahs and seminars."
Certainly, he has time to explain his eight scandal-proof rules for surviving Washington Bureacracy. They're full of the favoirte old anecdotes, passed from bar stool to bedroom, but Laitin tells them longer -- and with new luster -- each time.
Rule No. 1: Sell the Sizzle.
Laitin's rise to Washington legend began with his first scandal back in high school. In fact, he never graduated. That was because he wrote a spicy story for his local Brooklyn, N.Y., newspaper, blaming the bad season of the school football team on players who dated before games.
He says his tongue was in his cheek, but nobody believed him. Definitely not when another reporter came out to Brooklyn from the New York Journal and did a story on him . Laitin says he left before they kicked him out.
He soon appeared in Washington as a reporter for the United Press, they traveled around the world for the Reuters wire service. Eventually, he settled as a free-lance writer in Hollywood. On a trip back East, a friend suggested he leave the West Coast glitter for a government job. Laitin wound up in the office of Kermit Gordon, John Kennedy's budget director.
"You're the man I've been looking for," Gordon said.
"For what?" asked Laitin.
"My special assistant," replied Gordon.
"Look," responded Laitin. "If I've become an expert in anything, it's sex and glamor."
Gordon picked up the budget appendix, similar in size to the Manhattan telephone directory.
"That's exactly what this thing needs," he replied.
Laitin's career had begun.
Rule No. 2: Know Your Buzzwords.
Kennedy was assissinated three weeks later. The White House wanted to project an image of stability, so Laitin, like most others, stayed on. Pretty soon Johnson was campaigning on a theme of budget cutting, but was still announcing expensive new programs. This distrubed George Reedy, the press secretary. He went to the budget office for help.
"Reedy would say," Laitin remembers, "'How do I explain that we're asking for more money when he's campaigning on cutting the budget?' So I said, 'This comes out of the contingency fund.' And nobody ever challenged it. What the hell was the contingency fund?There was no contingency fund!"
"I finally pried loose that fact," sighs Reedy, now dean or Marquette University's journalism school.
"Well, what it was in those days," continues Laitin, "is when you sent the budget up, there would always be a line saying contingency fund,' $100 million or whatever, and every time you needed money, you said it came from there. But nobody ever added it up. Then one night, Reedy says, 'How big is this contingency fund?' And I said, 'Better you shouldn't ask.'"
Says Reedy: "Nobody knew anything about the budget in those days -- including me."
Rule No. 3: Source the Hot Stuff.
Laitin quickly wound up as Reedy's assistant. Soon after, LBJ himself took a fast liking to a man who knew the inside dirt like Laitin did.
When the president was at the ranch, he'd call Laitin every night about 11, anxious for the most recent goods on the White House reporters who'd traveled to Texas. The juicier, the better. "I never heard Johnson call reporters anything but ---- faces," Laitin explains.
There was one particular White House correspondnet for the old New York Herald Tribune whom Johnson especially disliked. This reporter had a penchant for vigorous nocturnal activities, so Latin, knowing he had a captive audience, featured him in most of his stories to the president.
"At first I told true stories about him," says Latin, "but then I began making them up. I think the president knew I was making them up, but he loved it just the same. It was just two good gossips."
One night, Laitin outdid himself. In this story there were dancing girls and . . . well, he just outdid himself. But the next morning the president saw another byline on the Herald Tribune story. Suspicious, he called Latin. "You telling the truth?" he asked.
Suddenly, Laitin remembered that the reporter hadn't made the trip to Texas. "I began to sweat bullets," he recalls. But then, inspiration.
"Mr. President," he said, "that reporter finally got so outrageous, his office called him home. They've got a new man here."
("I'm at my best," says Laitin in a present-day aside, "when I've got my back to the wall.")
"Well, good," the president said to Laitain, "let's give the new man a scoop to prove to his office they don't need the other guy."
The scoop: The president was calling his chief economic advisers to an unexpected meeting at the ranch. The end result: Reporters wrote a number of stories causing the people of the United States to believe that their nation was headed for financial diseaster.
"For chrissake," Laitin remembers the president yelling at him, "you're plunging the country into economic chaos."
"And all over those dancing girls," chuckles Laitin today.
The former New York Herald Tribune reporter remembers the story exactly as Laitin tells it. There's just one exception.
"I didn't have a penchant for vigorous nocturnal activities," he says, "anymore than anyone else did."
Rule No. 4: Study the Science of Timing.
Not too long after, Reedy was on his way out. Bill Moyers, now a television journalist, was on his way in. Laitin was allied with the wrong man. Was the end near?
Are you kidding?
Moyers is about to announce his new deputy, a man who has been a long-time assistant. He has a newspaper background. Laitin is hanging around, waiting for action.
"Just before he went out to announce who his deputy would be," recalls Laitin, "he turned to this fellow and said, 'What was that newspaper you worked for?' And the guy said, 'The Portland something-or-other.' And Moyers said, 'How long did you work there?' And the guy said, 'There months.'
"Three months?!' said Moyers. And the guy said, 'Yeah, I went to law school, and I'm a lawyer now.' And Moyers," says Laitin, "just as fast as that, turned to me and said, 'Joe you're my deputy.'"
Here's what Moyers says: "I don't remember that story, and I don't necessarily believe it." Then he laughs. "But some of the truest things Joe Laitin said never happened."
Now, Laitin won't deny that an Associated Press reporter had warned him that Reedy's days were numbered. And he won't deny that this reporter told him to ally himself, quickly, with Moyers.
But Laitin insists he did no such scurrilous thing. His reaction to the advice?
"Why," he says grandly, "I was shocked."
Rule No. 5: Acquire Personal Spies.
Especially in a White House like Richard Nixon's. After the election, Laitin figured he was through. He was back at the budget office at this point, so he began packing up his desk. But fate struck: The new budget director was Mayo, a man he'd done a bureaucratic favor for in the past. The two men liked each other fine.
Then the White House fired Mayo. And the word went out: Get Laitin, too. White House aide Larry Higby, H. R. Haldeman's Haldeman, was a key player in the effort. "Now with powerhouses like that after me," he adds, savoring the memory, "there's no way I could have survived -- except for one little thing.
"Those blokes still hadn't learned not to write 'eyes-only' memos. See, Higby was assigned the task of coordinating the next plan of action to get Laitin, and every week he would write a memo to the others, explaining how they were going to move me into a corner and make me look anti-administration." t
Higby, through his secretary, has nothing to say about this.
"I don't blame him," responds Laitin. "Do you?"
"But every week, I think it was on a Monday," Latin continues, "there would be a Xeroxed copy of their plan for the upcoming week. I don't know who was doing it, but I've got my suspicions. I had my own private 'Deep Throat.'" He chuckles with glee.
"And it was very interesting," Laitin continues. "As each of those guys left the administration, under one circumstance of another. I would find the nameplate from his door under the papers on my desk. And when the last guy left, there was one with a rose."
Rule No. 6: Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run.
Meanwhile, Watergate was really heating up. Ron Ziegler, the White House press secretary, was slowly being sliced to bits by increasingly hostile reporters. He asked Laitin, who was liked by the press, to come over from the budget to be his deputy.
But Laitin knew this was suicide. "If I went over to the Nixon White House," he says, "I was sure I'd only last six weeks." So he began making demands so unreasonable, he figured the White House would have to turn him down. First off, he wanted the same salary as Ziegler.
"Joe, having been around for a long time, proceeded to ask for everything he could get," laughs Ziegler. "Including a car."
Which he got. The salary, too. "When can you get over here?" Ziegler asked.
Laitin stalled. What to do? Finally he said:
"Ron, there's only one other thing on my mind."
"Ron," said Laitin, "I just want to tell you. The press will use me to destroy you. If you bring me over there, they will every day praise me to the skies and just cut you to bits. They'll say 'Latin's so good, thank God we got him. Who needs Ziegler?' I know this crowd."
"Let me think about that," said Ziegler.
Laitin laughs gleefully. "Never heard from Ziegler again."
Here's what Ziegler, now president of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, says these days: "I don't remember why I didn't get back to him, but it wasn't because of that statement."
Well, what was it, then?
"Oh, says Ziegler, "just the press of events. I think it was something like the June 21 tape that diverted my attention."
Rule No. 7: Learn Grace Under Pressure.
Enter Gerald Ford. Laitin stayed on again, this time a beneficiary of the era of good will that followed the Nixon presidency. He eventually became press aide to an old friend of his, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. But then Ford fired Schlesinger.
For Laitin, this was a very close call. But he surfaced over at the Federal Aviation Administration in a top press job, given to him by an old friend. He was there until the Carter administration. Jody Powell came to pick his brain, and Laitin soon landed as assistant to Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal.
One day, he incurred the ire of his boss. This was a frequent event. But this time, Blumenthal shook his finger under Laitin's nose and yelled:
"You know, you weren't my first choice for this job!"
Laitin paused, thoughtfully. He knew his response would determine his future.
"You know," he finally said to Blumenthal, "Christine wasn't my first choice for my wife, either. But every day since I've been married to her, I thank God for all the women who turned me down."
Blumenthal, to hear Laitin tell it, absolutely broke up.
"I will not deny it," says Blumenthal now chief executive officer of Burroughs Corp.
"I made only one big mistake that time," concludes Laitin. "I told my wife."
Rule No. 8: If All Else Fails, Find Someone to Hide You in the Pentagon.
This is one thing Laitin says he's never done.
These days, he's at home in Bethesda more often. He likes "Barney Miller" and "Masterpiece Theatre." He has a son and a stepson. He plays chess and reads. He went last month to the Radio and Television Correspondents annual dinner, but for the first time in 15 years wasn't invited to the Gridiron. "I figure I saved 50 bucks by not having to rent tails," he says, referring to the dress required at the annual dinner for the establishment press and its celebrity sources.
Again, he wants no pity. "I've got no complaints," he says of the past 18 years. He does admit, though, that he probably should have left after Nixon. "I got angry," he says, "and I was determined to see if I could outmaneuver them, which I did. But that was a poor excuse for staying. I guess my ego got the better of me.
"You know," he says, reflecting, "you have every right in the world to say, 'Why did you do this to yourself?' But I don't know. It reminds me of when I was over at the Pentagon, and there was this admiral there who told me that when he first went to sea, his cabin was right over where they keep the atomic warheads. And he said, 'You know, the first couple of weeks I couldn't sleep.' But then after a while, he figured it wouldn't make any difference if they were just conventional warheads.
"And then after a couple of months he said, 'You know you're on top of them, but it's part of everyday life. So you just stop worrying about them and then you don't lose sleep.'
"And in a way," says Laitin, "with me it was the same thing."