Ben Gordon was talking about the unflattering public perception of government, how people think Washington's the problem and government's the enemy. Bloated, overpaid, underworked. The hell with them, he said, warming to the subject. Then, with impish immodesty, he blurted out: "I'll be perfectly candid with you. The people don't deserve me."
The phone rang. Gordon grabbed the receiver, listened for a moment and leafed through the papers on his desk until he came up with a medical magazine, opened to a full-page advertisement. It was a bureaucrat on the line calling from the Food and Drug Administration. Gordon's manner changed instantly. He became aggressive, combative, inquisitorial.
"Now Thorazine is an anti-psychotic," he said, "and I notice they are advertising here for quote, chronic neurotic anxiety and agitation, end quote. Damn it! This is a powerful drug. Since when do you advertise a drug like this for anxiety? And incidentally. I notice that whereas the pushing comes in big letters, the adverse reaction and caution come in very small letters. When a doctor sees 'chronic neurotic anxiety.' he's apt to give Thorazine instead of, say, Valium or Librium or something like that, which is considerably milder and considerably more likely to take care of the anxiety."
A pause as he listened to the response, and then an explosion:
"How the hell can these bastards get away with it?" Another pause, and another outburst:
"Damn right, it's a good question. Can't we do something about it? Why the hell do we have to put up with this . . . In my opinion we ought to have corrective advertising so that doctors are aware this is an anti-psychotic drug, extremely dangerous, and should be used only under limited conditions. And if we can't get a corrective ad, at the very least can we get a cessation of this advertisement?"
Longer pause, listening intently, and finally a milder reply:
"All right, do your best, will you? Let me knows in the next day or so, will you?"
He hung up.
Whether power in Washington is really shifting from the White House to Capitol Hill, as many believe, there's no doubt that the congressional staffers are becoming more influential. In the increasingly complex world of government, they have more and more to do with selecting the issues, investigating the chosen subjects, picking the witnesses, drafting the speeches and shaping the legislation. A a rule, they are anonymous, the seldom seen but indispensable agents of Congress. How well they work, and whether what they do makes a difference, often are disputed matters. Their quality and impact vary from staff to staff and committee to committee. But about Ben Gordon there's no disagreement.
In this bland, passionless present, Gordon's a rarity. He's not afraid to be angry, to say what he thinks. He's a boat rocker who glories in taking on the giants. As always with that breed, they are uncomfortable people to have around. They are usually cantankerous, driven, controversial, egocentric, prodding and pushing - being common scolds. As Gordon himself says, "I'm not a self-effacing type. You've got to be aggressive, you've got to be strong, and somehow or other I've managed to survive." They are gadflies. Without them, all our lives would be poorer. They are the ones who make the difference.
You probably won't recognize Ben Gordon's name, althought you might have seen his face at some televised congressional hearing, or heard him ask barbed questions with his broad-A Boston accent. But after 20 years as staff economist with the Monopoly Subcommittee of the Senate Small Business Committee. Gordon, a gnome of a man, has left his mark on a wide range of public issues.
He's investigated the dangers of combination antibiotics, false and misleading advertising of oral contraceptives, overpricing of brand-name drugs compared to generic drugs. Fifteen years ago he was instrumental in pushing the late Sen. Estes Kefauver to lead a vain effort to provide for government ownership of the satellite system, resulting in a filibuster and the first vote for cloture in 35 years. He's helped senators take on corporate giants such as ITT and AT&T. And he's looked into a variety of other consumer rip-offs: Why you're paying far more than you should for eyeglasses, why research and development corporations should get to keep patents for valuable products for which the government has paid.
In that time, Gordon's developed a network of contacts around the country, and even overseas. People call him with tips and information that they hope will lead to congressional hearings and corrective legislation. The other day he got a typical call. It was a Republican congressman, passing on information from doctor in his district. The doctor had gone to five different hospitals, carefully nothing the prices paid by each for the same drugs. They differed dramatically. He turned the list over to his congressman, who passed it on to Gordon.
Normally, Gordon puts that kind of information into a folder, letting the information build until he's arrived at a hypothesis. Then he tries to prove it often by inspiring a public hearing and calling withnesses. This time, however, Gordon didn't keep the material. He passed it on to someone else. At the end of this week, Ben Gordon's leaving the government. He's conducted his last investigation.
After 20 years on the Hill and 12 more in government service with the Army and then the CIA as a specialist on China, Gordon's going on his own. His wife tells him, he says, "Look, you worked for the public, now why don't you go out and start working for yourself?"
"I saw the other day where 67 per cent of the public thinks government workers are getting too much money." he says. "Now look at these fellows in government, look at what I deal with, I save the government millions upon millions of dollars. In fact, as a result of our drug hearings, many lives have been saved. And at the same time they're paying a basketball player maybe $200,000 a year and a guy who makes automobiles, the head of the concern a half a million a year.
"What the hell does he do? He probably doesn't know a damn thing about the making of automobiles anyway. There may be many government workers who aren't worth what they're getting, but I submit that I'm vastly underpaid. If the public doesn't want to pay, they deservewhat they're getting."
That's part of it, the gadfly part. The rest is that, at 63, Gordon's had a lifetime of government service and knows it's time to look toward other interests. Underneath that seemingly gruff manner, Gordon's a sentimentalist with a sharp sense of humor. He' a story-teller himself. And what, after all those yearsand all those struggles strikes him most about the changes in Washington? "Now everybody's so damned serious," he says. "How many people tell jokes and stories? Nobody. In fact, my staff director tells me when I leave, there's nobody to tell stories."
That's not the only reason people are going to miss Ben Gordon.