The cold satisfaction instead of sympathy with which former business colleagues greeted Treasury Secretary G. William Miller's embarrassment in the Textron affair is a hot clue that economic calamity is crowding an unknowing Jimmy Carter.
Nobody in the corporate or financial communities really cares whether, as chairman of Textron, Inc., Miller could have been all that ignorant of the giant conglomerate's overseas bribery. But many corporate magnates are pleased with his discomfiture for the reason stated by one framed Wall Street barracuda: "He's been a turncoat to the things that a businessman believes in." For different reasons, Capitol Hill also enjoys seeing the aloof Miller in trouble.
Yet, no Cabinet member has a higher standing with President Carter and his inner circle. What endears Miller at the White House is precisely what alienates him with Wall Street, Capitol Hill and Treasury Department professionals: at the Treasury now, as earlier at the Federal Reserve Board, Bill Miller is unabashedly the president's man.
More is involved here than academic discussion of the secretary's proper role. There who feel he should represent a business constituency while also serving the president believe that dual role performs an economic early-warning function. As Carter's loyal servant, Miller does not alert him to unpleasant truths. "He is nothing more than an establishment version of Ham Jordan," a financier with impeccable Democratic credentials told us.
Early warning is badly needed, in the opinion of the business world. While Carter, Jordan and Co. bask in the glow of rising political polls, businessmen see an economy wildly out of control and markets frigheningly unstable. Making matters worse is a Treasury secretary too quick on the trigger with his judgments and a Treasury Department in disarray.
Miller's predecessor, W. Michael Blumenthal, was purged in last year's Cabinet shake-up for what Carter aides called "going into business for himself" -- that is, publicly offering independent judgments. That sin ultimately made Blumenthal a hero to businessmen who were at first suspicious of him. He not only belittled pet administration schemes like hospital cost containment but made no secret of it.
There would be no such "going into business for himself" by Bill Miller. As Federal Reserve Board chairman (a post independent of the adminstration), he shocked the financial world by declaring on July 30, 1978, that "we're going to see interest rates peak" before year's end. That might have been good mid-term, election-year politics, but it was deplorable economic forecasting.
Worse was Treasury Secretary Miller's statement to newsmen last Sept. 14 that the nation was "halfway through" a recession. Again, that fit White House happy talk at the low point of Carter's popularity, but it was hooted at by serious economists. Miller, backed away a month later.
At that point, in mid-October, Miller embarked on a course affecting the Chrysler Corporation loan guarantee that has been widely labeled as a "disgrace" in Wall Street. After first declaring he would support a tightly policed loan of no more than $750 million, Miller ended up backing twice that amount with no visible strings attached.
All this pales, however, comparison with Miller's Jan. 15 statement that "it doesn't seem to us an appropriate time to sell our gold . . . "That no-sell statement stunned American financiers and sent gold racing upward $50 ounce in one dizzying half-hour.
This tendency by an extremely bright man to speak before he thinks, a common failing in Washington, might be forgiven. So might a personality variously described in Congress as "cautious," "aloof" and "arrogant." So might a disposition that enshrines neatness, both personal and for his ever-clean desk, and abhors tobacco smoke to the point that ashtrays are not permitted in his office.
What is not forgiven is the perception that has now spread to the central banks of Europe that Miller is so much the political front man for the electioneering president that he shuggs off economic reality. The problem is compounded at the increasingly demoralized Treasury by the Feb. 28 departure of the widely respected Anthony Solomon as undersecretary for monetary affairs.
"The one thing that doesn't pay any attention to the political polls are the markets, and they are the only indicator of reality," one worried Wall Streeter told us. But the president pays no attention to the haywire markets, and his secretary of the Treasury does not signal the danger. To apprehensive businessmen, that is a far more serious misdeed than failure to control his conglomerate's bribers.