Q: Let's talk about how Washington is different then to now. What are the big changes?
A: People. mostly. There was a small government compared to what we have now. I get very startled when somebody points out that the staff on the Hill consists of 30,000 people. It just boggles my mind. But it is true. And it means that there are substantive changes.
In my day, if you had a problem, you went up and saw the senator and discussed it with him and he'd say, "Well, I agree" or "Let me think about it, come on back." You'd come on back and you'd discuss it again. You see a senator today, he'll say, "Well, there's something to that, talk about it with my staff," and you never see him again. The staff makes the decisions. The senator's got too many balls in the air, I guess. I don't think it's a very efficient system. Tip O'Neill said one day his real problem was the staff. He says they have all these very well-educated people with not much to do. They go around drafting and getting ideas and, he said, "They give me most of my trouble."
In my day, if you had a problem to solve you had to talk two or three people and if you convinced them, you were on the way. I think today, you have to talk to 23 people. By the time you get to the 23rd, the first three are dead and you have to start over again.
Q: Is this inevitable, what's happened? Or was it stupidity that allowed it to happen?
A: I keep thinking about the growth of the White House staff, for instance. Something I've been yelling about forever and getting nowhere. I remember I went off in the navy during the war, so I was away about three years. Roosevelt had died and Truman was president and I had some friends who worked in the White House and I was talking with them and said, "Who does this that I used to do? And who does this that I used to do?" And I remember saying, "My God! You've got nine people doing what I used to do."
Every president that comes in screams. I remember Lyndon Johnson said, "I'll cut it if it's the last thing I'll ever do. I'll cut it down, cut it down, cut it down." And he, like any other president, ended up with more than the last fellow. I guess this is true of Reagan today. I'm sure his White House staff is larger than Carter's and Carter's was larger than Ford's and so forth. I don't why. It seems to be no reason. Except there don't seem to be any internal controls. The president wants to cut his staff down, but never does.
When I first went (to the White House), there were three secretaries and, I think, one assistant secretary. And that was a great expansion from Hoover, who had only one secretary. Who did everything, I might add. While we were building the arsenal for democracy and getting ready for the war, it started expanding. It's never stopped since.
Q: What was it like for you? You were, what, 25 or 26 years old?
A: I was 28 when I first went in the White House. Roosevelt said, "Your job is to be a bird dog." I said "What does that mean?" "Just run around town and find out what's happening." So that's what I did. He'd send me off on errands or I'd go find something and bring it to his attention. Pretty good job.
Q: What sort of hours did you work?
A: Long hours. When Jimmy Carter was first president, I remember watching him fly out to Camp David with these reports under his arms. I said, my God, that'll kill that fellow. In Roosevelt's day he got the big reports and sent them over to me and say I want a one-page memorandum tommorrow morning. So I was up all night, but he wasn't.
Q: Who brought you to his attention?
A: Jimmy Roosevelt was secretary to the president. But he also wanted to be governor of Massachusetts. So he spent a lot of time up there, where his business was. And he made speeches. In those days everybody seemed to write their own speeches. He was handling a large part of the government, but whenever he started to write his speech, he closed his office down. Nobody in the government could get near him for about three days. Tommy Corcoran started screaming about this. He said, "You can't do that." Jimmy said, "I've got to make these speeches." So (Corcoran) said, "I'll get you a speech writer." So I turned up. Part time, occasionally to write a speech. And Jimmy liked them and one day said, "Why don't you come over and work full time?" And I think they almost doubled my pay. That's the real reason I went. I had just gotten married and could use the money. I don't think I was that overcome with the glamour of the White House. The glamour of the money is what got me.
Q: I'd like to go back before this phase. The businessman's son from Butte arrives in Cambridge in, what, 1927? How did it come that you went off to Harvard from there?
A: I was out to a Jesuit prep school and I liked it. And they had a college. I think my father was afraid I was going to be a priest, so he sent me out.
I didn't want to go to Harvard. I didn't even know where the hell it was. But at that time, Lowell was the president and he was starting to make Harvard a national university rather than a regional New England university. So a Westerner could practically walk in free. They said, all right, come along, if you came from Montana.
Q: Did you feel like a bumpkin?
A: It was hard educationally. Out West, I'd always been first in my class. When I got in this place, hell, these fellows just ran over me. I almost flunked out. I was on probation for about a year and a half. My father wrote a letter to this freshman dean, saying, "My son is fairly big and he probably would be a good truck driver. Do you think he'd be a better truck driver? Tell me and I'll take him out of there." I got mad about that, so I started to go to work. I think that saved my day. I in effect said the hell with you fellows, I'll show you. And I worked from then on.
Q: Somebody told me a story about (Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) inviting you to tea on Sundays and always asking when you were going back to Montana?
A: Brandeis had this concept -- and he may have been right -- that the states were the place to do the experimenting -- you should never have a strong federal government. Therefore the brains of the country should be diffused. If a fellow came from Montana he ought to go back to Montana. He used to have those teas where you used to see people but the food was dreadful. He always said to me, "Mr. Rowe, when are you going back to Montana?" I would say, "Oh, maybe another six months." One day he passed by and said, "You're not going back to Montana, are you?" I was never asked back. Interesting man, Brandeis.
Q: Did you ever think about going back?
A: I thought about it a lot. I thought to get into politics out there. I remember once when I was in the White House, I went out to see my family. A gangly fellow whom I knew said, "I hear you're going to run for the House." I said, "Well, no, I'm not." He said, "If you're not going to run, will you support me?" I said, "Well, yes, I will." His name was Mike Mansfield. So I always supported Mike.
Q: When you came in '34, what was the atmosphere? Was there this infectious enthusiasm that we hear about in the New Deal?
A: There was indeed. Rex Tugwell used the phrase that got him in trouble, saying, "We will roll up our sleeves and make America over." The press raised hell about it, and business. We privately thought that was just what we were doing, and it was clear that there was a black-and-white situation. The businessmen and bankers were bastards and we knew it, and something had to be done. And they thought we were bastards. So the issues were very clear. We worked all the time on legislation or rules and regulations. It was a heady atmosphere. Roosevelt's enthusiasm brought the young here. It was a young government. He had no prejudice against the young. Which I thought then was fine. I'm not so sure it's so good now.
But he was, I hate to use the word, a charismatic fellow. He had great appeal and charm. I keep thinking -- I watch Reagan on television and I remember Roosevelt on radio. Roosevelt's radio appeal is the same kind that Reagan seems to have on television. Roosevelt was a more exciting fellow. And certainly knew a lot more about government than Reagan does. But it was a very exciting period. I don't think there has ever been one like it. When Tommy Corcoran died I did his eulogy in the church. I said something about, "With the possible exception of the Founding Fathers there's never been (such) a period." And I'm not so damned sure about the Founding Fathers, but I didn't say so. They were pretty good, I admit.
Q: How did Roosevelt treat the staff?
A: They all adored him. Roosevelt didn't like the law much, and he didn't need money, so he never really worked at it. He never really worked at anything except politics. And people. I think the reason the staff loved him is all his life he'd been charming people. It was just instinctive. You walk in the room, "Bob, how are you." Call you Bob first thing. And if he didn't like what you did he got a little cold but he never got angry. He never yelled at you. His entire staff, secretaries and everybody else, just worshipped him. They might get a little critical about him in the back room, but that was as far as they went.
Q: Would he invite you in for a drink at the end of the day?
A: Sometimes. Or we used to have lunch. Which I hated because I handled all the appointments at the time and I didn't get enough time with him. If he asked me for lunch I knew I'd be filibustered. I'd go in to talk about appointments and then he'd get off on Hyde Park. I know more about Hyde Park than anybody around. Have you ever heard that Claude Pepper story about him? He was a young congressman. He had a project in Florida he just had to have and he was not getting it. He got an appointment with Roosevelt. For some reason Roosevelt was really against it. (Pepper) was given this 15 minutes. So he walked in, sat down and Roosevelt looked up and said, "Claude have I ever told you about my wife's ancestor Robert Livingstone?" And Claude sat there for a lecture about Livingstone, and at the end of 20 minutes, photographers and reporters started coming in. And (Roosevelt) said, "Claude, I've got a press conference. I've just got to stop. And thank you for coming in." And Claude said, "Mr. President, my project?" "You'll have to talk about that some other day." Claude said, "I never got my project, but I was the best-informed man on Livingstone in the United States."
He did that a great deal. If he didn't want to give you something he'd just talk and charm you. And with me, there was no reason he had to charm me. But he'd rather talk about Hyde Park than make the appointments. He wasn't against any of them, he just didn't want to go through that drudgery.
Q: What do you think about what's happened to the law business?
A: I never understand it anymore. It seems to have got out of whack completely. I don't understand all these law firms opening up their Washington office. And I gather a lot of them are not doing too well at the moment. I think there are too many lawyers in the world. You're the only non-lawyer I know at the moment.
Q: What about the theory that the presidency just doesn't work anymore, that you can't be an effective president?
A: I'm not sure that's true. I've always felt that we ought to pick our presidents from a very narrow class. They all ought to be professional politicians. They should have spent their lives at it. You can see that in Roosevelt. I think the most important part of his life, that people never watch, was the eight years here as assistant secretary of the Navy. He knew everything about Washington before he (became president.) He was governor of the largest state and therefore had to be a good administrator. He had one campaign as vice president under his belt. He was a very experienced, professional fellow. Johnson was the same type. Kennedy. He never did anything except politics. They learned how the system ran. I don't think Jimmy Carter ever did. He never managed to make things work.
And again the White House has become a staff problem. We were very careful with the Cabinet. He didn't pay much attention to the Cabinet as an institution, but he thought they were important people, and so did we. And we better damn well had! And I don't think they're important people anymore. And it's too bad, because I don't think a centralized staff can run a government of this size.
Q: Let's talk about LBJ.
A: He came to Washington as a young congressman just about the time I went to the White House, and we became great friends. Have you read the (controversial new Robert) Caro book (biography of Johnson)? I'm very hard on Caro. I think he's a son of a bitch, and I think he's a hatchet man and a few other things. I was a great admirer of Johnson. God knows he had his faults, as we all know, but Caro doesn't give him credit for anything. I went down to the University of Virginia and made a speech. Rather arrogant speech -- "Presidents I Have Known." Talked about five of them. And I said I thought Johnson was the brightest of all of them. The most complicated man, the most insecure man, but certainly he was the brightest of any of them. And I even include Roosevelt in that.
Q: It seems surprising that the two of you would hit it off.
A: Oh, yes, we were good friends. He realized the power in those days was with the New Dealers, not with the Congress. So if he wanted anything done he's better know the New Dealers. And he did. He had tremendous energy, swept around, knew everybody. He used to come to dinner and he was a great talker. You'd walk in a room and you'd never met him and he'd just captivate you. After about half an hour you might wander off in another conversation. Most of the dinner guests did that. And when they did Johnson would just sit there and go to sleep. His wife would go over and wake him up and then he'd pick up again and grab the crowd. And when he lost 'em he'd go to sleep.
Q: You've sat here in Cleveland Park and watched an incredible number of characters come and go in this town. How does that look from your point of view?
A: As I explained to my children -- or as they tell me -- it's getting to be my old age. I do say there were giants in my day. And I'll fight for that. I said the other day, "You know, you don't have senators the way they were in my day. All these (new) fellows have the same damn hair stylist!" In my day they had long hair and they had string ties and they were colorful fellows. And they knew their stuff. All these (new) fellows --
Q: How do you explain it?
A: Television, I guess. The kind of fellow who appeals to the public through television is the sort of slick fellow with the hair cuts.
Q: How do you feel about what's happened to the Democratic Party?
A: I don't think there is such a thing as a party. I don't think there has been for a long time. And I don't know how to resurrect it. I've got to say that about both parties. The Republicans are better off at the moment, but I've watched the rise of the PACs, that's where the money is. That's what Congress is interested in. The party just isn't there.
Q: Is there going to be a revival of the progressive impulse in American government? Is the pendulum going to come back again?
A: It always has. A lot of the motivation is there. Unemployed, people starving. I think it'll come back. In what form I don't know. Pretty much the same as the New Deal. The country's more complicated but the problems are more serious. I think the progressives will come back. They always do.