Perhaps the most audacious of Richard Nixon's schemes was his attempt to Nixonize the federal bureaueracy and bring it under his tight, personal control. Without the consent of Congress, he intended to increase the power of the presidency in a revolutionary way.
If he had been able to pull it off, it would have amounted to almost a coup against our existing form of government. He succeeded to a degree in subverting the Civil Service Commission, which is supposed to protect the professional bureaucracy from political encroachment.
The story has never been fully told and the conspirators have never been held accountable. Here are the details:
Richard Nixon had an intense distrust of the millions who compose the permanent government. He often complained that the federal bureaucracy was dominated by "liberals" and "academics." He would confide to intimates that a "Jewish cabal" had taken over this office or that agency. He issued orders that no more "Ivy Leagues" should be appointed to high positions.
Nixon's denigration of the Civil Service System led the White House to begin a quiet political purge. Those who were considered unreliable were shunted into obscure jobs and replaced by people with Nixon credentials. The White House also set up a political clearance system, which checked the political philosophies and connections of hundreds of new applicants for government jobs.
This subversion of the regular institution of government, of course, was conducted in the utmost secrecy. Even in the backrooms of the White House, Nixon aides were careful not to refer to it in political terms. Fred Malek, the aide in charge of the purge, admonished them: "I propose we stop calling it 'politicizing the executive branch' and instead call it something like strengthening the government's responsiveness." The euphemism stuck, and the operation becoame known as the Reponsiveness Program.
By executive decree, Nixon also sought to create a super-cabinet of loyal aides who would have total power over the bureaucracy. They would force his policies upon the government through White House agents who would be installed in every department. Nixon, meanwhile, intended to insulate himself from unnecessary turmoil, devote his energies to formulating policies and deal regularly only with those select few who were on his wavelength.
But he found out that a seething enterprise like the federal government could not be compartmentalized, cordoned off and led from a glass bubble. He left behind, nevertheless. Civil Service officials who not only supported his power play but who allegedly destroyed documents to prevent Congress from learning of the abuses.
The transition team, which hepled turn over the reins of goverment to Jimmy Carter, was sharply critcial of several career people at the Civil Service Commission. Although the transition papers have been kept secret, inside sources say the final report pointed an accusatory finger, for example, at John Cole.
He heads the powerful Bureau of Personnel Management Evaluation, which has the authority to examine the personnel practices of any government agency. Yet despite the critical evaluation of his own performance, Cole is still evaluating others. Futhermore, the commission has no plans to transfer him.
This has upset Rep. John Moss (D-Calif.), who has been keeping a watch on the commission for years. He has written a stinging, secret letter to President Carter calling for the removal not only of Cole but of the executive director, Ray Jacobson.
Declares the letter: "Suspending the authority of [Jacobson and Cole] is essential. Until questions of document destruction and concealment of the commission's role in violating the merit system are answered, these individuals should not be allowed to exercise authority."
Some of the past abuses may yet wind up in court. Congressional critics complain that the Justice Department has been less than vigorous about investigating these excesses of the Nixon era. But Civil Service Charman Alan Campbell says he was assured by high Justice officials only last week that the investigation is still active.
Meanwhile, the agency that is supposed to enforce antidiscrimination standards throughout the government has been accused of discrimination itself. Its equal-employment director, Clinton Smith, complained in a memo, meant for official eyes only, that top commission officials are impeding efforts "to effectively enforce internally the very laws and regulations the Civil Service Commission is responsible for enforcing in the government-wide merit system and [equal opportunity] programs."
Footnote: Spokesmen for the Civil Service Commission claim that steps are now being taken to investigate all the allegations. The general counsel has been ordered to review the equal-opportunity program and an outside authority will investigate allegations that the commission violated the merit system.