IF SOMEBODY comes up to you on the street and offers you a subcabinet job in the Reagan administration, run home as fast as you can, barricade the doors, pull the blinds and don't forget to unplug the phone. Take it from someone who has been there -- you'll live longer and retain your sanity.
I should have known from the start that something was wrong. Less than 48 hours after I met with Secretary of Educaion Ted Bell, the White House Presidential Personnel Office phoned to say that my name was going forward to the president to be undersecretary of education, the number two spot in an agency with 7,000 people and a budget of $15 billion. Two days to get an undersecretaryship? Couldn't be.
As I found out 10 days later, and again 10 days after that, it indeed wouldn't be. My nomination was votoed by the White House Senior Personnel Committee -- without explanation. When it all ended, I could look back on an experience that proves part of Murphy's law: Nothing is as easy as it looks.
I suppose it had begun during the first week in January when, three weeks late, the president finally appointed a secretary to run the Department of Education. I should have spotted that delay as the first bad omen. I knew Secretary should have spotted that delay as the first bad omen. I knew Secretary Bell well. We has served together in HEW in the early '70s under Elliot Richardson, and we had dealt with each other in the mid-'70s when Bell was U.S. commissioner of education and I was a senior staffer on the House Education and Labor Committee.
I congratulated Bell on the day he met with the president-elect, and during the next three weeks I sent him two letters noting issues that I thought needed attention. Then, on Jan. 28, Bell's appointments secretary called to tell me that the secretary would like to see me early the next morning.
So, at 8:40 a.m. on Jan. 29, nine days after the inauguration, I sat down to talk with him. After a brief discussion of some issues and potential candidates for assistant secretaryships, Bell told me that he'd like me to be his undersecretary. I was certainly pleased, if a bit stunned as well.
Bell had been discussing key positions with Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet friends and haen discussing key positions with Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet friends and had just rejected their candidate for undersecretary. Twenty minutes after our meeting, Bell met again with the Kitchen Cabinet and suggested my name. Their reaction, I am told, was, "Who's he?" To fix that, Bell suggested that I contact a number of people with connections to the Kitchen Cabinet and ask for their support. It was quick in coming.
On Saturday, Jan. 31, Bell met with Pendleton James, the top personnel recruiter, and his key staff. At that meeting I was cleared and then called by both the White House and Bell; I was told that an announcement would come within about 10 days.
It was also then that I should have remembered the opening of Murphy's Law: Everything takes longer than you expect.
On Monday, Feb. 2, I traveled to Iowa City to spend three days working in my company's main office. When I returned to Washington, a call awaited me from the White House counsel.
As a result, I went to the Old Executive Office Building, was interviewed and told that the president had signed off on a notice of intent to nominate. Everything seemed set.
It was later that same morning that the trouble began. The personnel office said some opposition had been raised to my nomination. It was assumed to be just a trivial matter. Nothing to worry about.
I was asked to draft a memo outlining my involvement in the 1980 presidential campaign and to list people who would vouch for my abilities and my politics. I should have been suspicious when I was given enough forms to denude a forest and asked to list every place I had lived since 1937. I hadn't even been born in 1937!
On Tuesday, Feb. 10, The Washington Post carried a brief item in its "Executive Notes" column noting my potential nomination, as well as those of two people for assistant secretary-level positions. At 2 p.m. that same day, by coincidence, the personnel office told me that my nomination suddenly had been vetoed and that "there is no appeal." An hour later Bell confirmed the verdict, saying his hands were tied. Murphy strikes again: If anything can go wrong, it will.
As news of what had occurred spread, however, a number of key senators and congressmen made unsolicited calls to the White House on my behalf. As a result, I received a call at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Feb 11, from a friend in the White House: My nomination was being reconsidered; my chances were 50/50. That information was confirmed in phone calls between several congressmen and administration officials, including the vice president and White House Chief of Staff James Baker. Up the roller coaster again.
By Thursday morning the second wave of euphoria started to wear off. I began to suspect that "reconsideration" meant something else. Late in the day, though, a high-ranking White House official called one of my congressional sponsors to inform him that I was no longer on the "black list." cDid that mean I was cleared? No one seemed to know. Another day of confusion.
Friday was the 13th and, true to form, brought with it more bad news. for the second time in three days the personnel office told me that I had been vetoed. But then two hours later a friend in the West Wing informed me that my support was growing, that I was still "alive." I began to wonder if the physicians all had mail-order medical degrees.
With those confusing signals I began the longest three-day weekend of my life. I also began to develop an abiding hatred to telephones as I waited for some word to arrive, one way or the other.
Since the first "veto" call, I had tried to discover the reasons behind it. What I learned was that the White House personnel system had come up with some remarkable facts I had never known about myself.
I was accused, for example, of supporting and even helping to write the Family Assistance Plan. Wrong. I never even attended a meeting on FAP, the ill-fated Nixon welfare reform scheme.
I was accused of not working for the Reagan campaign. Wrong. I had, among other things, drafted the briefing materials on education for the TV debates. N fact, my associates on that project are now all on the White House staff.
I was accused of not having conservative support. Wrong. My support included several key conservative members of Congress.
The one accurate objection was that I had not labored in the vineyards for more than a decade a get Ronald Reagan elected. If that were enough by itself to prevent appointments, though, the Reagan administration would be without a number of Cabinet secretaries and a large portion of its White House staff.
As if to prove further the existence of mass confusion, the following Tuesday a source in the Department of Education informed me that my conflict-of-interest form had been received for pocessing, that it had been recalled, and that the recall had then been cancelled, all within a few hours and all several days after I had been "officially" told that my nominations was dead for the second time. Murphy was sprouting clones.
By the time Friday, Feb. 20, rolled around, I could take the suspense no longer. About noon I place a call to the secretary's office, and at 12:15 p.m. Bell came on the line to inform me that a major earlier at the White House and that I had again been "vetoed." By the time that final ax fell, I was more relieved than angry. I was simply tired of the entire mess. It was at this point that I invented Cross' corollary to Murphy's Law: When there is bad news, nobody can find a phone.
I did discover a number of blessings in the ordeal. I have many more good friends than I had ever imagined. I won't have to take a substantial pay cut after all. I can hold my schedule to sane proportions and find time for a weekend free of the phone company's umbilical cord. I am sure, however, that there are easier ways to be reminded of all this.
What's perhaps most ironic about the experience is that I still support the administration in general and the thrust of its new education program in particular. By now my frustrations have merely turned to amusement. Nonetheless, if you're standing at the corner of 17th and Pennsylvania and someone comes up to you . . .