For a time in the late 1970s, Fred Emery achieved to a moderate degree two things that almost always escape fellow civil servants: real influence on the government, and public acclaim.
Emery, now 45, a lawyer from upstate New York, was director of the Federal Register, in effect the federal government's daily newspaper. The Register carries the texts of new federal regulations, and for most of its life it was achingly, soul-obliteratingly dull, as well as nearly incomprehensible.
Emery spent the 1960s rising through the bureaucracy as a regulation-writer.
He's the man who wrote, during a stint at the Federal Aviation Administration, the line about returning your seat backs and tray tables to their full upright position -- the one you hear on every airline trip.
In 1970 he took over the Federal Register and began trying to change it. He started printing highlights of the regulations. He started printing preambles written in laymen's terms. He even started giving classes for regulation-writers around the government to teach them to write understandably.
The Register wasn't exactly the National Enquirer, but it became much more readable than before.
Then Jimmy Carter became president. Just after he took office he had a half-hour meeting with Emery, became interested in the writing of federal regulations, and eventually issued an executive order commanding that regulations henceforth be written "in plain English."
That was in 1978. Fred Emery enjoyed, for a while, a minor sort of celebrity as the man who was going to teach the bureaucrats English. Then, last year, he quit.
Now he is president of Fred Emery Associates, a one-man consulting firm whose buisness is -- guess what? -- to teach government regulation-writers to write English, for a fee of about $150 per student per four-week course, with government paying the tab.
He'd like to branch out and teach corporations how to write regulations themselves. "What I've been trying to tell businesses groups is that they've got to take regulations seriously," he says "You actually write the regulation for the federal government. And this is nothing new. Boeing and Lockheed know how to write a regulation."
In other words, Fred Emery went through the revolving door.
His story is important because it makes a sad point about the federal government: that even the people who have everything a civil servant could dream of, who are truly making a difference, leave as a matter of course.
Most high-level civil servants are unlike Emery in that they stay on until they are eligible for the generous federal pensions. Then they're out like a shot. Among federal employes eligible to retire at age 55 at full pension, the average retirement age is 56.8 -- and bear in mind that the government allowed its employes to stay on to age 70 until last year, and now has no mandatory retirement age.
"More and more of the better people," says Emery, "are saying, you know, the hell with it."
Why did he leave? In large part, for the same reasons everybody cites when leaving government: kids (three) approaching college age, a salary frozen at the top of the federal scale, fear of staleness, the lure of the American dream of self-employment.
But it was more than just that. The federal civil service is the largest single employer in the United States. In a nation that has put its future in the hands of large institutions, it is the largest. And it doesn't instill passion in people, tending to snuff out the passion in those rare people who have it, like Fred Emery.
The reasons for that are complicated, and reach deep into the individualistic roots of the American character. But perhaps the most important of them is this: big bureaucracies turn people's attention relentlessly inward, away from function and toward internal, organizational matters.
The moment Fred Emery knew he would leave the government was the morning of Jan. 6, 1979. In that day's Washington Post, he saw an obscure little story at the bottom of page C8.
The story was headlined Petkas to Head Regulatory Council." It explained that Peter Petkas, an official of the Office of Management and Budget, would be taking charge of a new organization called the Regulatory Council, which would coordinate federal regulatory policy. Petkas would have a staff of 16, the story aid, and a budget of $2.5 million for the first six months of 1979.
"That clinched it," says Emery. "I hadn't even gotten my extra $250,000 for quality improvement approved. After a while, after saying, "in one year it's gonna really happen,' you start to say, 'it's not ever gonna happen.' And it's never gonna come from the bureaucracy. It has to come from outside. aThe bureaucracy just says, 'do a better job but we're not gonna give you more resources.'"
That's why Emery left. He says that of the people he respected most in his 16 years with the government, almost all have left too.
"I think they're all gone," he says. "One is still there -- my deputy at the Register. Another was Jim Minor. He's a whiz. He was chief of regulations for the FAA, trained the best drafters in town. He took early retirement at 52 -- the pension is attractive, and why put up with the frustrations? Tom Tidd was deputy general counsel of DOT. He used to put in, day in and day out, a 12-hour day.And I think Tom after a while said to what purpose? He's with the Association of American Railroads now."
And Peter Petkas? He has enjoyed starting a new organization within the government, but he too is starting to yearn for the yonder shore.
"I plan to stay on after Carter's election," he says, "assuming he is reelected. I don't think I'll stay much past that. I think that this kind of work at the higher levels of government, though it's exciting and exhilarating, it's also frustrating and at times depressing. It wears you down after a while."