YOU MAY think you can't bear to hear another word about the Jean Harris case, but if you share my affection for the old Mae West joke, "Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?", you will want to review this bit of testimony by the defendent:
"I pulled myself up on my knees, the gun was on his lap, I remember reaching for it . . . He dropped the phone and grabbed my waist like he was trying to tackle me . . . I felt the muzzle of the gun in my stomach, or what I thought was the muzzle."
Is it possible that the good doctor contemplated, however briefly, a more amiable resolution of the evening's difficulties? I like to think so. Indeed, I find much to admire about the departed physician. Recall the Harris testimony about when she burst into his bedroom and awakened him. He showed the same gentle forbearance I have tried to display in such situations:
"He was not enthralled to see me. He said, 'Jesus, it's the middle of the night.' I said, 'It's not the middle of the night.' He was lying on one pillow with another one held to his stomach and he closed his eyes and didn't seem to wake up . . . I finally said, 'I've brought you some folowers.' . . . I waited . . . Then I said, 'Have you done any more work on your book?' He said, 'Jesus, Jean, shut up and to to bed.'"
Seriously, there is much to sympathize with in Jean Harris. Even her snobbery is embarrassingly typical of middle- and upper-class Americans. Most of us would probably not be as bald about it as she was in her putdown of her "uneducated" rival who actually "socialized with servants." But practically every writer, teacher or intellectual of any kind I know would take the same trouble that Harris took to show she really knew Somerset Maugham didn't write "Magnificent Obsession," a fact that was absolutely irrelevant to any issue in the case and the only purpose of which was to let the world know that Jean Harris knew.
If you want to understand the very essence of Washington, attend carefully to this story. It involves an old friend of mine who from time to time acts as a lobbyist for various clients, and a wise old congressional leader who knows practically everything there is to know about the city and its ways.
My friend had sought the leader's help in the early stages of getting a bill passed for one of his richer clients. After the initial help was given, the ball began to roll so well that the bill was passed without any further contact between the leader and my friend. Then one day they ran into each other at a party. The leader said to my friend, "Why did you get that bill through so fast? Now your client pays you and that's that. You have to stretch these things out so your meter can keep running. Have a committee hearing in one session, get the bill out of committee in the next, and get it passed in a third. Don't spoil the client with quick success; it's not good for your pocketbook."
The leader's advice was Washington speaking. Stretch it out. That is what makes your job last. That's how temporary government agencies live on and on.
I am reminded of another great Washington principle by the appointment of Fred Fielding as White House counsel. Fielding, you will recall, was John Dean's assistant in the good old days of Watergate. Dean describes, in his book, "Blind Ambition," how, when Fielding joined the office, Dean called him in and said:
"'Fred, I think we have to look at our office as a small law firm at the White House. We have to build our law practice like any other law firm. Our principal client, of course, is the president. But to convince the president that we're not just the only law office in town but the best, we've got to convince a lot of other people first. Haldeman, Ehrlichman and the others who surround the president. Here's how we do it.'
"Our conflict-of-interest duties were the key. The work was complicated and boring, but I had already sensed that it would produce new business. It seems that when you really get to know a man's personal financial situation and then candidly discuss his job here to determine if he has any conflicts, you can end up in his confidence if you play it right. And once you're in his confidence, he sends you his business."
Dean puts the matter delicately. The truth is that the guy is scared of you. You know things about him he doesn't want everyone to know. So of course he sends his business to you. He wants to keep you happy.
The same technique is used by government lawyers who review the security investigation reports on new officials. The lawyer who displays sympathetic understanding of that little episode in the San Antonio hotel room -- "It could happen to anyone, Al, it certainly has no bearing on your loyalty and I see no reason to bother the president about it" -- is likely to be rewarded with all the legal business the official can send his way.
Washington is full of John Deans, earnest young lawyers spending most of their waking hours thinking aobut how to get new business. Perhaps the most common tactic is to discover a problem a potential client has created for himself by not seeking legal advice. The lawyer, then, with a mournful shake of the head, says in effect, "If only you had run that one past me, Al, I could have saved you a lot of trouble." Of course the cleverest lawyers never put it that badly. Indeed, they imply it with such delicacy that the potential client thinks the idea has originated in his own mind.
Reagan has sold out to the senior citizen's lobby. On Feb. 14, James Brady announced that the administration would not cut back on social security retirement funds and Medicare. This means that programs totaling $185 billion per year will not be cut at all. Brady explained that the decision was made in order to keep the administration's pledge not to deprive the really needy. Most of these funds, as a matter of fact, go not to the needy but to the middle and upper classes. So the "haves" win again. The elderly, who are an increasing proportion of our population, are fast becoming one of the most powerful lobbies in the country. I believe the main domestic political struggles of the '80s will be between the forces of good sense and the lobbies who seek benefits for the old without regard to need. And Reagan has already taken the wrong side.
Another indication that Reagan is not the man for the '80s is his hiring freeze. What does a freeze do? Peter Kellner and Lord Crowther-Hunt found out when they looked at one tried by the British government in 1979: "Posts with a low turnover, such as senior administrative jobs, wre reduce by less than those with high turnover, such as clerical jobs." There are, in other words, too few Indians left to serve too many chiefs.
A second factor in the inefficiency of the freeze is that few government employes do absolutely nothing. They may spend two-thirds of the day reading the paper, extending the lunch hour and attending pointless meetings, but one-third of the day will usually be spent doing something that needs doing. This means that if a job is not filled, something is not going to get done, which in turn means that the real way to reduce government employment is by consolidating jobs, turning three thirds into one job. But you have to know what you're doing to do that, and I'm afraid too many of the Reaganities don't know yet what they're doing.