You are probably too young to remember Sherman Adams and the vicunååa coat, but some of us old duffers do. I have never been entirely clear in my own mind as to what a vicunååa actually is, whether it is an animal of some sort or merely an early form of synthetic, a kind of primal ultrasuede. But fortunately you didn't have to know. All that mattered was that a vicunååa coat was a luxury, and Adams, the top aide in Dwight Eisenhower's White House, accepted one, along with some other gifts, from an improper source and got booted out of his job and sent home in disgrace. If you had said "Wordsworth" to me in those days (I was a recently liberated English major), I would have said "nature." If you had said "Keats," I would have said "beauty." If you had said "Sherman Adams," I would have said "vicunååa coat."
I got to musing about this the other day when Mike Deaver was convicted on three counts of perjury by a Washington jury. It seemed to me that when you made a quick run back through postwar history, an awful lot of top aides and confidants of the top man got in a peck of trouble at some stage of the game: Harry Vaughan, Sherman Adams, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Bert Lance and Mike Deaver among others. Granted, these are quite different men and different cases. But there is a common thread. The presidents in question were reluctant to part with their counsel, were in some cases even afraid to proceed without them and sought -- at least some did -- to maintain the advice channel after they had left, as Deaver already had when he got into trouble. The sentiment was summed up in Eisenhower's famous, plaintive explanation of why he didn't want to let Adams go: "I need him."
Why do our presidents tend to rely so much on men who get into hot water? I suppose some of the combativeness with which the miscreant is at first defended by the boss may be owing to simple human insights and instincts. The thinking would progress a little like this: they are really trying to get me by getting this guy . . . he has worked like a dog for me and I owe him something . . . the whole thing is being blown out of proportion . . . nobody can replace him, the place will be a real mess . . . God, how could he have been so stupid . . . I could kill him. But wherever the internal musings lead, generally the source of the trouble will finally go, if not to prison, at least to another line of work.
My first subversive thought is that sometimes this is too bad; sometimes the answer to the question of "why" is that a president needs someone with the kind of street smarts that verges on corruption to complement his own unimaginative or humanly deficient political personality; other times he may need a real louse, a staff Gauleiter to do the ruthless managerial things he is too craven to do. In other words, felonies, warts and all, the aide may have been a force for good, or at least for effectiveness and order, in the inner circle of the government he got kicked out of. The characteristics, undisciplined and unrestrained, that ultimately bring him down may have been, before they got out of hand, exactly what qualified him for the job.
No doubt because of my own political inclinations, I think this about Deaver, who tended to push the more liberal, less conservative case in the Reagan White House, and I really don't care if, as his critics claim, he was treacherous and opportunistic in doing so and only acted for some misguided public-relations reason. I think he helped Ronald Reagan. I would say something roughly comparable of Bert Lance, who seems unable to keep out of trouble, no matter how often he is punished and warned, but who also would have greatly improved Jimmy Carter's White House inner sanctum had he been able to stay on. Lance had (and has) the warmth, humor, political savvy and ability to understand and connect with other people and politicians that the Carter group lacked. Haldeman the drill sergeant was able to fire and otherwise abuse people whom Nixon wished fired or abused but didn't want to deal with himself. And I expect that Adams the martinet (he was famous for slamming down the receiver on some of the most august ears in Washington) fulfilled an essential function for Ike precisely because of the trait that later landed him in the soup.
That trait was arrogance, the occupational hazard of the White House job and also of other cosmic ranks in Washington. It is what eventually gets most of them, what allows them to indulge their wants and weaknesses rather than restrain them as others know they must. These guys are not distinctive in having such inclinations, only in coming to believe that they can let them loose without incurring penalty or revenge. Deaver was supremely self-confident in his heyday, making enemies like a den mother makes cookies -- in batches. He went over the line in his post-White House business hustling, and when the trouble predictably came, he did not seem to realize what was waiting out there for him: Reaganites on the right who despised him (with cause), anti-Reaganites who enjoyed the downfall of a one-time biggie, fellow hustlers and lobbyists who resented him for going too far and giving their way of life a bad name. All relished his comeuppance. If he was surprised by any of this, he would have been the only person in town who was, and this gets you to the final twist: these people are killed by their own good fortune. They become so isolated in their power, so pampered and flattered and shielded from the truth that they are the last to know what's going on.
It is this very cosseting that leads so many of them to believe they can do anything they want. Washington conspires in this. It bows and scrapes to them when they come into office. They do not know that the fawning will stop the moment they get in trouble or take a lesser job. They are encouraged to believe they are invincible and politically immortal and that neither what they do in office nor what they did before or do thereafter is subject to the same rules others live by. You do not have to sympathize with those who get in trouble to say it's a damn cruel game. And the list of losers, awesome as it is, will never be complete. Even as this crowd gets ready to leave town, permanent Washington, which understands these things, will be standing there waiting to meet and ingratiate itself with whatever comes through the door, singing out in the agreeable, professionally welcoming tones of your friendly salesperson behind the counter: "Next?"