The sign says "Closed," but through the window you can see the faint outlines of people around a table. At 6 o'clock, a waitress flips the sign to "Open," the lights go on and here are George's Cafe regulars getting a jump on breakfast.
Hunched over cups of steaming coffee, they welcome a latecomer. In these parts he's Jack Block, in the rest of the country Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block. There is little to distinguish the 50-year-old Cabinet officer from the others in their faded jeans and visored caps passing around the homemade peach jam.
Block's father, Julius (Judd) Block, 72, is here. Nowadays he does the bookkeeping for the 3,500-acre spread east of town known as Block Farms and leaves the day-to-day task of running it to Jack Block's 26-year-old son Hans. The Blocks call theirs a "family farm," although that may be stretching it some, since Hans has six hired hands who help him with the work.
Like the Blocks, members of this breakfast fraternity raise pigs, corn and soybeans. They are kindred spirits who consider a pig beautiful when it grows quickly, looks happy and betrays a certain curiosity about human visitors. Later, checking the farrowing barns at Block Farms, Block jokes that his pigs are "wondering, 'What the hell's the Boss doing in here with us today?'"
Knoxville (population 2,000) is one of the few places Block can go to avoid criticism and controversy. The day before, he had flown to Wisconsin to meet with 2,000 dairy farmers angry over forthcoming reductions in price supports for milk -- and, in general, over the administration's methods of coping with the three-year-old Farm Belt economic crisis. Block calls it the worst since the Great Depression.
For almost an hour farm men and women hurled accusations at Block, the farmers' favorite whipping boy in the Reagan administration. Finally, voicing a common concern, one desperate farmer called out, "Why don't you tell people that the bulk of your farm program is to put family farmers out of business?" It is no wonder that Block has nursed an ulcer on and off for several years.
This was not the first time John Block had traveled far to face an unfriendly audience. As a good soldier in the Reagan administration's war on big government, he willingly goes wherever he is needed. This week he is in the Soviet Union, the 32rd country he has visited on fact-finding missions. In the service of the cause, he has, in fact, traveled more than any of his predecessors.
Block may lack passion for the high drama going on around him ("Less government is the best approach to saving the family farm" was his reply to that Wisconsin farmer), but he does not lack conviction about the need to reduce the government's role in agriculture.
In this year's battle over a farm budget, Block was all over Capitol Hill meeting with farm state legislators, pushing the administration's line of frugality. But as was the case on other crucial farm issues in the past, he and the administration bowed to congressional pressures to put more money into farm programs. In return, President Reagan was able to win Senate support for his budget compromise.
Many feel that the agriculture secretary is in a losing position. "The things most important to him are decisions made by others," says Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), "and he has to take the blame for all of it."
Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, who recommended Block to Reagan in 1980 because he had "hands-on" experience as a farmer, says it's impossible to gauge Block's political future. "It's hard for secretaries to control events, with Congress looking for more money for more spending for agriculture. It's a rocky road for any secretary. Farmers view Block as being on the wrong side because they want more, and he can't get more."
Taking advantage of the congressional recess, Block has launched a media blitz to influence lawmakers next month when they take up the 1985 farm bill that will establish levels of support for the basic farm commodities.
He believes that farmers identify with him regardless of how "negative everything turned in winter . . . If I had not been a farmer, had not known farming, was not one of the crowd, I'd have been burned at the stake by now."
Things haven't been easy for the nation's number one farmer. Once he was a golden boy of American farming, known for his smart farm management. Today his high-rolling farm investments have soured and his business practices with hometown partners have provoked sharp scrutiny and criticism on Capitol Hill. He is reported to be at least $5 million in debt -- no one, including his office, seems to know for sure.
Last year John W. Curry, a business partner of Block's, received a controversial $400,000 loan from the Farmers Home Administration that provoked charges of favoritism. Block denied having had prior knowledge of the loan or taking any role in the matter, and an investigation concluded that the loan was proper. The financial troubles of both men persisted, and in January the secretary announced he was severing his financial ties with Curry.
In some partisan circles, the belief that he has failed to provide a voice for farmers has earned him the sobriquets of "Auction Block" and "Stumbling Block."
Block says he knows his support has eroded in "pockets of the country where problems are the worst," but he feels that most of today's farm problems are "out of the reach" of the secretary of agriculture. "I can't control the interest rates that have victimized us, the worldwide recession, the strong dollar."
At least one member of Congress has called publicly for his resignation. Others have speculated that once the White House gets a farm bill, Block's usefulness as a lightning rod will end. This scenario would open the way for Deputy Secretary John R. Norton, a wealthy Arizona farmer close to Reagan's inner circle.
Block denies that he is discouraged or feels threatened by Norton. Calling Norton's selection "a kind of joint decision," he says he had "at least an even hand" in it. "It gives the department a little balance. I can carry the Midwest heartland and South and he can carry the West. I'm always looking for a little balance."
Of his personal farm problems, Block acknowledges that he owes "a lot of money, like everybody else" and that "in time" he might worry about being foreclosed, but that it's not going to happen soon because his own farm is financially sound even if some of his partnerships, which his office says are in the process of being dissolved, are in economic hot water.
Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), who as governor of Nebraska got to know Block when he was agriculture director for the State of Illinois, thinks the Cabinet officer could become a victim of his own farm policies.
"I really believe that if the president's farm bill ever became operative it might well be the end of John Block's operation," says Exon. The senator notes that Block, like so many other farmers, is heavily leveraged and that he also may have other liabilities involving his troubled partnerships.
The Blocks are spending a rare evening relaxing in the rec room of their Northwest Washington town house. At the front door is an iron pig, the family industry trademark of which there are several other versions scattered about. The furniture has the same comfortable look that the Blocks lived with in Illinois. What weren't in Illinois are a portrait of Sue Block, slender and fair in her 1981 inaugural ball gown, a black dog named Shadow, a white cat named January and two red telephones, one direct to the White House.
On this night Jack Block feels like talking about agriculture. Some nights he doesn't. Some nights, his feeling is, "I've fought the wars for the day. Sue'll ask me and I don't give her a whole lot of answers."
Sue Block never tires of hearing about it -- "No! Why, for heaven's sake?" she asks, slightly shocked that anyone might think she does.
"Maybe she'd give a different answer if I left," Block teases.
"We do so many things, go so many places," she says later. "There are some people who connive and plan to get someplace in life who never get there. This wasn't the case with us."
Sue Block used to be Sue (for Suzanne) Rathje, which means "adviser" in German. And, grinning, she admits that she does advise her husband, "though I don't know that he takes it." They have their disagreements, but years ago they decided that if they asked one another whether it was worth fighting about, usually it wasn't.
They met at the Illinois State Fair where he was exhibiting 4-H hogs and she 4-H Southdown sheep. She stayed in the same dormitory as his sisters, but he didn't pay a lot of attention to her.
Sue Block says he called her that fall asking her to come out to Wheaton for the weekend when he was in Chicago with the West Point debate team. She had a date, but told him she'd be glad to see him later. That night when she got home, he was out in the barn helping her sister deliver a lamb.
Remembering it all after 30 years makes it seems as unpredictable to the Blocks as the demands Washington first put on them. Sue Block had seen herself coming here as "just this person" who wanted to practice her Chinese cooking and learn to dance (as a student at fundamentalist Wheaton College, she never had). She hadn't been here long before she realized her job was to be an extension of her husband and that the teas, luncheons, dinners, receptions and trips abroad wouldn't leave time to do much else.
"I still don't know how to dance," she says ruefully.
What she wasn't prepared for was all the media attention paid their personal lives. When Time magazine ran a story about the $320,000 house they bought on Palisades Lane (and then sold in 1984 for $355,000), Sue Block called up Pat Haig because their husbands both had gone to West Point. The connection was admittedly slender, but she found Pat Haig a consoling ally.
"She said, 'Sue, I've learned that unless they attack you personally just don't pay attention.' So I've used that advice, too."
In no time at all the Blocks were among the more sought-after of the Cabinet couples. Sue Block's appearances ranged from soup kitchens to charity benefits. And John Block was showing something of his Corn Belt style with the guitar. After a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, at which Sue held the music for him, Block confessed that he'll sing if people encourage him. "The trouble is, it doesn't take a lot of encouragement . . ."
And there were sour notes. In 1983 the secretary aroused criticism and a flurry of mostly negative publicity when he and his family went on a food stamp budget of $58 and, he announced, had a week of "quite adequate" meals.
From early on John Block, whom then-Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois called "a midwestern farmer with a world view," saw his special me'tier as dealing with foreign leaders. He says he feels obligated to attend some social functions, but that he particularly enjoys those involving other countries.
Block Farms, in fact, became the administration's showcase farm for foreign visitors. French President Franc,ois Mitterrand visited last year, drove Block's tractor, waded through ankle-deep mud and hugged two 10-day-old pigs.
"You'd be surprised how heads of state, like India's Gandhi, come here and I don't ask to meet them, they ask to meet with me," says Block. "It's that agriculture is so vital and important to these countries, not that I have the key."
The encounters appear to have added to his confidence. "I tell you what I feel like," says Block of the agricultural trade deficit. "I feel if I ever had the control of this thing myself, and I could dictate the terms, I'd have it done quickly."
There are those, even in Block's own party, who do not believe he will ever get the chance. Pressler, for example, expressed a common view that the agriculture secretary, be it John Block or John Doe, is a bit player on the large stage.
"Remember," says Pressler, "the secretary of agriculture is under the Office of Management and Budget and the Council of Economic Advisers. International trade is handled by the State Department and the Commerce Department. The secretary of agriculture, as a job, is really boxed in, in terms of the decision making he can do."
As an advocate for agriculture, however, Block is seen by some as a major factor in the administration's decision to revoke the grain embargo imposed by Jimmy Carter against the Soviets. The resumption of trade with the Soviet Union in 1981 has been the only bright spot on the otherwise dreary farm export front.
Jack Block, born Feb. 15, 1935, was two months old when a 200-mile-wide cloud of topsoil from overfarmed homesteads roared across the plains on an easterly blow. The storm, now known as "Black Sunday," was the worst of the Dust Bowl years. It turned the sunset to burnt orange for days, covered up crops and drifted around houses and barns like black snow. Fallout from it was seen as far east as Washington.
"You could look out the window and watch the Kansas farms go by," one Midwesterner told a reporter at the time.
"The wind blew everything into old Mexico -- except the mortgage," said another small farm owner.
It uprooted rural Americans by the thousands. Many of them were sharecroppers ineligible for the government subsidies Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted to induce farm owners to reduce crop production so that wholesale and retail market prices would rise -- "ancestors" of today's price supports, which Reagan farm policy would radically alter.
Judd Block's son Jack and twin daughters Judy and Jill grew up much as farm children everywhere -- swimming, hunting, riding their ponies to the one-room schoolhouse and raising pigs and cows for prize money and ribbons in 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America competition. Jack saved his winnings for college because while he always wanted to be a farmer, according to Judd Block, he also was interested in "talking and dramatics."
"I don't want to overplay that one," Jack Block jokes today. "You have 45 people in your junior class so I guess you can be in the play or there won't be a play."
For a brief time he attended Northwestern University, and that required him to dip into his savings. So when an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point came through, Judd Block remembers, "it meant he could get an education and still keep his savings."
In 1960, after three mandatory years with the 101st Airborne Division, Block, with Sue and Hans (daughters Cynthia and Kristi were born in Illinois), came home. If not preordained to farm, Block says, "I surely was positioned for it. I knew everything about it. I liked the life . . . "
Using his 4-H nest egg, he bought into his parents' 300-acre farm. Before long, he says, it became apparent to him that if it was going to support two families, they needed to rent extra land.
He expanded production and by 1969 had transformed the century-old farm of his maternal great-great-grandfather into a well-paying operation.
The last of the breakfast group is about to leave George's Cafe. Judd Block hesitates for a moment as he contemplates a question about how good a job he thinks his son has been doing in Washington.
"All I know is that my son is doing what he loves to do, living and breathing agriculture and talking to people. Most of the time now," Judd Block says, "he's on the defensive."