From their lofty station in a board room high in the Arco Plaza Tower, the 16 millionaires who have been helping shape a Cabinet for their friend, President-elect Ronald Reagan have worked with the unshakable faith that theirs is the first step in making America great again.
"Running the government is like running General Motors," explains one of their number, Alfred S. Bloomingdale, former board chairman of the Diner's Club. "It's twice General Motors or three times General Motors -- but it's General Motors. And that's where our background comes in . . . We're going to surround Ronnie with people of experience, the very best people in America. What we are doing is just trying to find the best guy for the job -- the ones we'd hire for our own business."
It is the system that has worked well for Alfred Bloomingdale and all this president's men and it is a system they are convinced will work well for the country. This past week in attorney William French Smith's board room they sought to mold a government in their own image.
Theirs is an image of solid Republicanism, conservatively founded on a set of bootstrap principles that were forged decades ago and that made them the millionaires that they are today. They are Ronald Reagan's closest friends and their wives are the same to Nancy Reagan. They are usually called the president-elect's "Kitchen Cabinet," they don't like the term, calling themselves instead, "the transition advisory committee."
Viewed from the outside, theirs is a homogenized look. But they see themselves differently. "I don't think of us as a homogeneous group," says Smith. "This group represents a pretty good cross-section of people who are in the spectrum of what you could call his [Reagan's]." It is a spectrum that ranges from millionaire to multmillionaire; from middle-aged to elderly, and all white male.
They are men who have not only made a name for themselves but also of themselves; Justin Dart, 73, of Dart Industries; Earl M. Jorgensen, 83, of Jorgensen Steel; Joseph Coors, 60, of Coors Beer; Holmes Tuttle, 75, of Holmes Tuttle Ford of Los Angeles, and Jack Wrather, 62, whose company bears his name too but is better known perhaps for the other names it owns, including the television series of the "Lone Ranger," "Lassie" and "Sargeant Preston of the Yukon."
They are, all of them, self made; they are not, any of them, on the make. "Ron has enough experience with Justin Dart," says Justin Dart, "to know that I don't want a goddam thing from him. I don't give a goddam about trying to please him or trying to tell him what he wants to hear. I don't give a goddam about what his opinion is -- I'm just going to give him mine."
Which he does. As he sits behind his desk on the top floor of the Dart Industries Building, which is located in Dart Square, Justin Dart prides himself as a man who is not hesitant to give advice to the man who will soon be president. Almost a year ago, when Dart heard the news that the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, according to a Los Angeles journalist who was with him at the time, Dart interrupted an interview to shout gravel-voiced instructions to his secretary to "get Ron on the phone." Soon Reagan was on the line, and Dart was rasping out the advice that Reagan should publicly call for the United States to send the Marines to Afghanistan.
On the other end of the phone, Reagan listened to these words of wisdom from the man who had transformed the once-troubled Rexall chain into a pharmaceutical empire. Ultimately, Reagan offered his own, different, Rx: he called for the United States to clamp a blockade around Cuba to stop all Soviet ships sailing toward Havana.
These days, the advice that Ronald Reagan has been getting from Justin Dart and his other close friends has been lists of names of people to fill the Cabinet posts of the Reagan administration, lists of finalists ranging from three to seven names for each job.
Reagan's friends made their decisions in a daylong meeting Monday. Later, in their homes and corporate headquarters, a number of this exclusive and loyal group talked about the business of helping Reagan shape his government and how they believe they are, even in their 47th floor board room, in on the ground floor of the remaking of America.
"This is a dream come true," says Holmes Tuttle. "We are going to surround Ron with people who will help get this country turned around again and standing up for the principles that made this country great."
Back in Washington, a few of Regan's top staff advisors have maintained that this informal circle of California millionaires is not a center of major influence upon Reagan and that it is not going to be the major force in the sculpting of the Reagan Cabinet and subcabinet.
But in California, these closest friends of the president-elect say they cannot believe that Reagan would ask them to spend as much time as they have on what would amount to mere busy-work for millionaires. And they recall that when Reagan became California governor in 1966 he asked for their advice and listened.
"We are not wheel-spinners and we are not out for our own egos," says Alfred S. Bloomingdale.
He is speaking in the large and lushly furnished den of his estate home that is between Beverly Hills and Bel Air, at the end of a long driveway that is lushly landscaped and decorated with a number of immaculately letter signs that warn visitors to beware of the dogs and remain in their cars and honk until help comes to welcome them.
"Ronnie wouldn't do that to us," says Bloomingdale. "More than anything else, Ronnie trusts us and respects us."
Relaxing in his den, Bloomingdale explained what he sees as the greatest assistance that these wealthy captains of business have been able to render the incoming president.
"Our biggest value has been in getting names. I'm not talking about a few -- I'm talking about thousands of names, from our business and social contacts throughout the United States. We each called our friends. The names we've collected have been submitted by friends and even if we don't know the people, we know who recommended them.
"Most of us are successful in business and approach things on a business basis. . . One reason we're there is if Ronnie picks someone for a Cabinet secretary who is a great personality but not a great manager then we can push for an undersecretary who is very strong in admnistration."
There has been considerable effort at outreach, Bloomingdale adds. He explains, "Ronnie asked us to consider minorities. Well, we got Hispanics. We got blacks. We got ladies. But if they're not right we didn't take them. We are after quality first."
As they pursued quality in their board room on the 47th floor Monday, this Reagan inner circle at times found itself embroiled in disagreement.
Justin Dart, jut-jawed and opinionated, sounded a crusty and at times unforgiving lines to hear others in the room tell of it. When the name was brought up of a person who had opposed Reagan in politics past, Dart was to have interjected: "The hell with the sonofabitch. He wasn't with us when we needed him."
To which his long-time friend Holmes Tuttle, interjected on several occasions: "Now, Justin, wait a minute. We have to broaden this thing out now."
Dart says that this is just about the way it was. "We diisagreed to beat hell -- so what?" says Dart. "Holmes Tuttle is goddamned near my brother, But I guess I disagreed with him more than anyone else in that room."
Holmes Tuttle, tall and erect and balding, is a man who like Justin Dart adheres to fundamentally conservative principles even if he has taken it upon himself to preach moderation, or at least toleration, within the council of this unofficial Reagan high command.
As he sat in his office, behind a desk set of matching gold pens, one etched, "With best wishes, Richard Nixon" and the other, "With deep appreciation, Ronald Reagan," Tuttle talked about his role in the meeting of the president's friends.
"Some bellyached because Ron had dinner with that mayor -- the black mayor of Washington, D.C. They say, 'Well look at what that mayor said about Ron.' But I say, 'That's just campaign talk. He's the president of all the people now.' I mean, he's the only president we've got."
Perhaps understandably, the assemblage of millionaires had a hard time agreeing on how old is too old. "We were talking about one guy who was I think 65," recalls Bloomingdale. "So someone says he's too old and then we hear a loud 'What? He's only a kid!" That was Earle Jorgensen. Earle's 83. Sixty-five is young for Earle. He thinks that's a kid."
Before their few disagreements in the doling of the Reagan plums, there was, in fact, remarkable agreement and often unanimity within the group on just who should be recommended -- and at times even more crucially, who should not.
"We don't see any reason to put a Democrat in the Cabinet," says Bloomingdale, expressing a view that was also voiced by others interviewed.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) may have been Richard Nixon's first choice for secretary of defense, a job Jackson then rejected, and he may have figured prominently on lists of speculation prepared by outsiders. But he was never on the list prepared by the Reagan inner circle, according to members of that exclusive ring.
The lists for this transition advisory committee were in preparation for months under the direction of E. Pendleton James, a professional executive talent hunter who learned his craft as Frederick Malek's deputy in the Nixon years, and whose name alone allows him to blend with protective coloration among the redwoods of the Reagan elite.
After the election, the talent hunter brought five boxes filled with resumes out to California from Washington for the perusal of the group. The boxes were too secret to check as baggage, he had told the airlines agent. So a compromise was struck: the boxes rode first class and E. Pendleton James rode coach.
By the time Reagan's informal advisers had finished their whittling Monday night, the job of hand-carrying the final report back to Reagan in Washington proved a much simpler task. It was just three pages long, with a short covering letter on another page.
Even though the report contained no less than three recommendations for each Cabinet post, it was clear that several named were the overwhelming favorites of the group. Three, in fact, were part of the circle of advisers: William Simon, former treasury secretary under Nixon and a prohibitive favorite to reclaim the post; Caspar (Cap) Weinberger, former director of management and budget and secretary of health, education and welfare under Nixon, who appears certain to have one of the major posts in the Reagan Cabinet and is a front-runner for several of them, and William French Smith, nominal chairman of this advisory group, who has been Reagan's confidential personal attorney for years and who is favored by a number of his friends to be Reagan's attorney general, despite his qwuiet and often painfully legalistic ways which bely Washington's traditional style of politicking at the top.
"I'm extremely high on Bill Simon," said Justin Dart. "His presence there [as treasury secretary] is a goddamn near essential. For our economic and monetary future, we must have him in that job . . . "
He was speaking from his office in the Dart Industries building, a drug store empire whose lobby is decorated not with mortar and pestle but with models of United Airlines planes including the huge fluorescent-lit photo of a United 747 that is christened the good ship "Justin Dart" and a huge fluorescent-lit letter that testifies to Dart's value as a servant of the airlines. It is a matter of personal pride to Dart that he is on the board of directors of United, just as it is undoubtedly a matter of professional pride to William Simon that he is on the board of Dart Industries.
In the case of Weinberger, many of his colleagues would like to see him serve as director of OMB once again, to preside over a Reagan battle to trim the budget. But a number of them say they understand that Weinberger wants to try something new such as state or defense.
These advisers are also strongly behind the idea of a creation of a supercabinet, which they say was pushed within their circle strongly by Weinberger and which is embraced by Reagan. Under the plan, some Cabinet secretaries will be mmore equal than others. They will be designated as the "executive council of the Cabinet," with the rest of the Cabinet secretaries reporting to them as they report to the president.
It is an idea that Nixon sought to establish back before his administration wallowed in Watergate. The Reagan advisers concede that efforts to strengthen the role of the Cabinet have failed in the past and that Cabinet officers have too often sought to protect and expand their agency turf when cuts were needed instead.
But this time, a government by Cabinet -- in a business-oriented Reagan administration -- will work, they maintain.
More than two decades ago, Charles E. Wilson came out of the auto industry and into the Eisenhower Cabinet in time to offer a benediction that would prove lasting about his America and his government and his times. "For years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa," he said. And now, Alfred S. Bloomingdale seizes upon a similar metaphor to explain why, at last, a cabinet-style of government will work for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
"It goes back to General Motors. The Cabinet secretaries will be like the presidents of Chevrolet and Pontiac. Sure, they'll compete with each other. Chevrolet competes wsith Pontiac. Competition is good. But their competition stops at what is good for General Motors. Because that is the greater good -- just like what is good for the United States of America. That too will be the greater good."