As Washington stories go, it has everything: power, politics, pettiness, ambition, an angry wife and the never-ending struggle for the ultimate brass ring, the presidency.
On one side was Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-I11.), the self-proclaimed purest-of-the-the-pure conservatives, his wife a handful of old friends and a couple of heavyweights from what has come to be called the "New Right."
On the other side was his entire senior presidential campaign staff, abandoning ship, resigning en masse in support of Crane's campaign manager, who had quit, telling Crane in a letter that he had concluded "I no longer believe you have the commitment or capacity to wage the sort of campaign necessary to win."
The loser in the episode appeared to be presidential candidate Crane, whose judgment and management ability were called into question.
The conflict didn't surface fully until yesterday. But it apparently had been brewing for more than a month.
Depending on one's perspective, it involved either (1) a crass power play by Crane's wife, Arlene, and his old friends to gain control of his presidential campaign, or (2) an esoteric battle for Crane's soul between what might be called the far right and the far-far right.
"Essentially, what you have here is a campaign that has taken off, and a number of people wanted to get a piece of the action," said Tony Palladino, former executive director of the campaign.
"Basically, Phil decided to let his wife run his campaign," said Rich Williamson, Crane's former campaign manager.
Palladino was one of five senior members of Crane's campaign staff whose resignations became known yesterday. The others were Arthur Finkelstein, a pollster and political consultant; field coordinator Rich Neal; press secretary Mari Maseng and Richard Reed, Crane's traveling companion and director of special projects. Most of the other 30 members of Crane's staff reportedly had also submitted letters of resignation.
The resignations were the last act in a drama that began Wednesday night when Williamson, who had worked for Crane eight years, gathered his staff together at the campaign headquarters in Arlington.He told them he had decided to resign and that he and other senior staff members planned to meet with Crane the following morning.
When Crane refused to meet with them, Williamson sent a hand-delivered letter. It said, in part, "At one time we had a shared vision . . . and a shared devotion to realizing your election to the presidency. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. I no longer believe you have the commitment or capacity to wage the sort of campaign necessary to win."
Crane reportedly "turned white" when he read the letter. He promptly appointed Jerry Harkins, an Iowa banker with only limited national campaign experience, who happened to be sitting in his office, as his new campaign manager.
Crane telephoned Palladino, who had run the day-to-day operations of the campaign, and told him Harkins would take over at 4 p.m. Palladino told Crane he intended to resign.
Others decided to join him. Before they left to caucus in a nearby restaurant owned by Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, several staff members locked their files so their replacements wouldn't be able to get into them.
Harkins retaliated by changing the locks in the building, monitoring private telephone calls yesterday, and stopping payment on salary and expense checks.
Thursday night Harkins moved to make peace with Crane's most influential ally, Richard A. Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail expert who had raised more than $1.7 million for the campaign. For nearly six weeks, the Crane Campaign aides had been in a bitter dispute with Viguerie over his mailing costs, which they said they felt were excessive.
On April 6, the campaign had ordered Viguerie to halt work. According to Williamson, Crane had supported this wholeheartedly.
"He was on top of the Viguerie problem," Williamson said. "He was harder-line than I was. He was ready to go to court."
The campaign, however, had decided to negotiate a settlement with Viguerie. Basically, it was a question of self-interest, according to Williamson. A sharp break with Viguerie, who has raised millions for conservative candidates, would damage Crane's credibility as a presidential contender.
Harkins persuaded Viguerie, over dinner Thursday, to stay with the campaign.
Crane, meanwhile, issued a statement announcing Williamson's resignation. Williamson, a spokeswoman said, had, in effect, been fired. This was untrue, Williamson said last night.
He said he had quit because Crane had undercut his authority, refused to make decisions, disappeared for frequent vacations, refused to return telephone calls to his top staff members and generally showed a lack of interest in his campaign.
A Crane Spokeswoman denied this.
But it was hard to measure how much damage had been done to the Crane effort. "The campaign is obviously at a crossroads," said Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress and a former Crane adviser. "If Crane brings in good new people, the campaign may be better off. If he doesn't, this may be the beginning of the end."
Weyrich and Viguerie, both frequently identified as leading spokesmen for the "the New Right," were key figures in a long-standing battle over Crane's campaign strategy. They maintained that the only way for Crane's long-shot bid for the GOP nomination to succeed was for him to forge a coalition of conservative Republicans with other groups, including anti-abortionists, people opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, gun-owners and religious zealots.
Viguerie's idea was to finance it all through a direct mail effort.
The strategy, however, began to shift after Finkelstein, a seasoned veteran of conservative campaigns, was hired as a pollster and political consultant. He lobbied for a more moderate strategy, with the candidate focusing more on economic issues than appealing to right-wing fringe groups.
Finkelstein, according to various sources, sold this strategy to campaign manager Williamson and to Palladino. This angered longtime adviser Weyrich, who had been scheduled to join the campaign staff, so much that he quietly quit in late January.
"If Phil was just going to become a young Ronald Reagan with a movie-star smile, I decided not to have anything to do with him," said another young conservative who began to be disillusioned with the campaign.
The congressman's wife, Arlene, an outspoken woman, also became suspicious of Finkelstein, Williamson and Palladino, and nicknamed them "the rat patrol." She quietly began lobbying for their dismissal.
Crane, meanwhile, was spending much of his time campaigning outside Washington. He was beginning to make organizational inroads in several key states, including New Hampshire and Iowa, and to all outward appearances appeared satisfied with his staff.
All this began to change last month when he read reports of the campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
"When the FEC reports came out and showed the campaign deeply in debt, Phil was deeply upset," said Laura A. Broderick, his congressional press secretary. "He hit the roof."
The reports, filed March 31, showed Crane's campaign $880,000 in debt. Through Viguerie's direct mail operation, the campaign had spent $2 million to raise $1.7 million from 70,000 people, a number which has now increased to about 80,000.
Palladino, meanwhile, had fallen at odds with Viguerie. He questioned his methods, strategy and the amount of money he was spending. "It appears he was at least guilty of some incredibly poor accounting," Palladino said.
Crane, who had also begun to complain to various scheduling snafus, fired off a memo 10 days ago, ordering a freeze on all spending. Viguerie, angry over his being challenged by Palladino, decided to leave the campaign.
Yeterday he was back. But he said he had agreed to stay for only two more months. If things don't work out, he said, "Some of the New Right may become interested in some other candidate. I've been a longtime admirer of John Connally."