The unseen work of Sen. Robert Dole, a lethal force in the backroom chicanery of Capitol Hill, fashioned the campaign against William Simon that led him to reject the Cabinet post that two weeks earlier he thought was securely his.
Quite apart from the desirability of Simon's return engagement at the Treasury, that sequence intensifies post-election questions about Ronald Reagan: are non-Reaganites like Dole supplanting Reaganites like Simon in setting policy for the new administration? Can the new president cope with the velvet-gloved grandees of Congress, including those wearing Republican colors?
That leads to a broader concern beyond the confines of Congress: the seeming passivity of Reagan. If Simon were really his first choice at the Treasury, surely the president-elect could have shrugged off intrigue to insist that Simon take the job.
Dole, who will be Finance Committee chairman in the Republican Senate, sharpened his knives after we reported Nov. 14 that Simon was telling one and all that he would definitely be secretary of the Treasury. Keeping in the background, Dole created a strong impression that the Senate Republican cloakroom was rising en masse against Simon.
The end result within 10 days was a prearranged transcontinental telephone conversation -- Reagan offering the post, Simon turning it down. Simon ignored the vicious backstairs Senate campaign against him. The reason he gave Reagan was his disinclination for a revival of wars with the White House staff that he continuously fought in Nixon-Ford days.
Simon's injudicious claims that the Treasury portfolio was his quickly spawned this report, circulated through the lobbyist community to the press: Senate Finance Committee Republicans had actually voted 7 to 1 to recommend against the Simon nomination. The source of the information was not hard to find: Bob Dole.
Savoring his imminent chairmanship, Dole had no desire for four years of combat with hard-driving Bill Simon. During a Nov. 17 meeting with Finance Committee Republicans, Dole suggested Simon would be in big trouble if he tried to walk over the backs of senators as in his previous Treasury incarnation. A few senators chimed in with support; nobody defended Simon.
Contrary to the circulating reports, no vote was taken. Sen. William Roth, Reagan's truest ally on the committee in pursuing supply-side tax cuts, characteristically kept his cards face down when it came to discussing Simon's abrasive personality. At least one member, Sen. John Chaffee, was not even present.
The reports of a Finance Committee campaign against Simon dovetailed with bad-mouthing from old enemies in the Ford administration, possibly including Gerald R. Ford himself. In his Nov. 21 meeting with Reagan, Ford did not attack Simon but may have tried to kill him with kindness by indicating it is a burden for a president to have to deal with a Cabinet member of Simon's competence.
The hot-tempered Simon sizzled over the burgeoning attack, complaining to friends it had "injured my reputation." He knew he was still the first choice of the California kitchen cabinet (thanks mainly to efforts by drugstore magnate Justin Dart), and he wanted a speedy announcement. He also was Reagan's choice.
But by Nov. 25, Simon had had enough. The Nov. 26 telephone call from Reagan was arranged as a vehicle for Simon to bow out. When that story broke two days later, some Reagan insiders spread word that the president-elect really had decided against him. "That's a lie," Simon told us, adding that he was Reagan's "first choice and only choice." Simon told others that Ed Meese, soon to be Reagan's White House chief counsel, considered Simon "too conservative" and would commence open was against him at the Treasury; Simon did not relish that.
Not even veteran insider Simon perceived Dole's hand at work. Earlier, Dole had ensnared the president-elect into endorsing a Democratic tax cut in the lame duck session of Congress that died thanks to Democratic opposition. Dole is no friend of Reagan's supply-side economics, which has few supporters in the Finance Committee, aside from Roth.
That is why a strong advocate at the Treasury is essential. But the quickly mentioned alternative to Simon, Citibank Chairman Walter Wriston, cannot be expected to face down power-hungry senators in Simon style.
The Republican Senate will not be a gentle paradise for the Republican president. His party's leaders there ignored Reagan's wishes in pressing for lame duck passage of the anti-toxic Superfund bill. Sen. Charles Percy, the new foreign relations chairman, has been conducting diplomacy in Moscow without Reagan's authorization, and Bob Dole has deftly managed to change the secretary if the Treasury, circumventing the president-elect's own wishes.