The Power Game explains how some members of Congress have built personal fortunes on PAC money, how Michael Deaver was just the tip of the influence-peddling iceberg, how “dissidents” in the Pentagon work to keep the generals honest, how insiders and “leakers” use the Times and The Washington Post and their personal bulletin boards.
Congressional staffers more powerful than their bosses, media advisors more powerful than the media, money that not only talks but intimidated and threatens. That’s Washington. That’s The Power Game.
Praise for Power Game
“The Power Game may be the most sweeping and in many ways the most impressive portrait of the culture of the federal government to appear in a single work in many decades. . . . Knowledgeable and informative.”—The New York Times Book Review
“There are oodles of good yarns in this book about the nature of power and the eccentricities that accompany it. . . . Delightfully fresh . . . [Hedrick] Smith is a superb writer.”—The Washington Post
“Not only the inside stuff, but the insightful stuff—an original view of the power playing.”—William Safire
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
1. The Presidency and the Power Float: Our Rotating Prime Ministers
The President … is rightly described as a man of extraordinary powers. Yet it is also true that he must wield those powers under extraordinary limitations.
—John F. Kennedy
Let us begin in Huntsville, Tennessee.
It would take years to find a more unlikely command post for an American president than Huntsville. Normally, Huntsville is a sleepy, peaceable mountain town (population 519), a classic slice of rural Americana set in the Appalachian forests of the Cumberland Plateau, nearly three thousand feet above the sea, and a sixty-mile drive northeast from Knoxville on sweeping, curving highways. It is the kind of tight-knit, little country community where, as one frequent visitor noted, “everyone knows when you come into town; and when you leave, they all know what your business was.”
For well over a century, this upland neck of eastern Tennessee has been so staunchly Republican and so loyal to the Union that when Tennessee seceded during the Civil War, Scott County seceded from Tennessee. For much of this century, the staples of the local economy were strip-mining, lumbering, and prospecting for oil and natural gas. But the local folks say that environmental regulations have squeezed the life out of these industries and that the best jobs these days are making hardwood parquet floors at Tibbals Flooring, or working for B. F. Goodrich in Oneida, about seven miles up the road.
Huntsville is home to the Scott County government seat but boasts little else. The center of town, “the mall,” is not much more than a grassy area surrounded by a two-story brick courthouse, a municipal building, one school, a grocery store, a drug store, one self-service laundry, a filling station, a community center, a motorcycle dealership, and a gazebo. No stoplight; only a blinker when school is in session. And the locals lament with envy that the nearest McDonald’s is over in Oneida.
In short, Huntsville has little to distinguish itself from thousands of tranquil towns dotted across this nation—except that it is located just off Howard H. Baker Highway, named for an extremely skilled and amiable hometown lawyer who rose to become majority leader of the United States Senate in 1981, just as Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. The Baker family had crossed the mountains into Tennessee back in the 1790s and achieved some local prominence. Senator Baker’s grandfather was elected sheriff of a neighboring county. The Bakers erected the town gazebo in Huntsville. But no one in the Tennessee family tree foreshadowed Senator Baker’s eminence as a close confidant and political ally of a president. Nor did anyone dream what their relationship would mean to Huntsville.
Because some months into Mr. Reagan’s term, Senator Baker used the occasion of a visit to the White House to propose that the president give a boost to the World’s Fair in Knoxville by appearing at its opening in the spring of 1982. Delighted by Mr. Reagan’s acceptance, the senator shared the good news with his wife, Joy. But she went him one better. “Well, why don’t you go back and ask him if he’ll stay with us that night?” she suggested. “That’d be a great thing.”
For all their years in politics, the Bakers were a pair of innocents. Neither fully anticipated the logistical tornado that is unleashed by an overnight presidential visit. But something else checked Senator Baker briefly. Like most politicians, he holds the presidency as an institution in considerable awe. That made him initially somewhat shy about actually asking President Reagan into his home. Moreover, since the attempt on the president’s life in 1981, the security restrictions on Reagan’s movements had been so tight that the president had not spent the night in any private residence.
“I didn’t want to do it,” the senator confessed, remembering his hesitancy. “But I finally decided I would. I mentioned it to a couple of his aides and they thought it was a great idea. So I worked up my courage and I asked the president, told him I appreciated his coming down, would he and Mrs. Reagan care to stay with us in our home up in the country outside Knoxville that night? And he said, ‘Sure, but I tell you what—Nancy’s coming in a day early. Could she stay an extra day?’
The Bakers owned a large rambler-style home, which they had built in the 1950s on the family’s secluded landholding. The nearest house was half a mile away, and on three sides, you could see nothing but virgin mountain forests. What the senator had in mind for the Reagans was a four-room guesthouse, about a hundred yards down a grassy knoll from the main house, with a stunning view of the mountains from a ledge overhanging a gorge on the New River. The guesthouse had been fashioned from barn sidings but was lavishly furnished for a cabin, with porches front and back to let visitors drink in the mountain panorama. For many years, the late Senate Republican leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen, who was Mrs. Baker’s father, used the guesthouse when he came to see his grandchildren. The quiet of the place was medicinal. From its high perch, one could hear the gurgling of the river, the evening crickets, and the mountain breeze rustling the oaks.
At word of the president’s acceptance, Mrs. Baker redecorated the guesthouse and fixed it up fresh. But the White House managers had in mind a much more ambitious overhaul than merely spiffing up the cottage. To the Bakers this might seem just a tranquil overnight interlude for a busy president and his lady, but the White House bureaucracy viewed the Baker homestead as a temporary global command post for the commander in chief. The trappings of power go with the President wherever he goes; they are the instruments of his power.
Automatically, the elaborate machinery of presidential travel geared up preparations for the president’s coming—for his safety, his movements, his communications, even his food. Nothing could be left to chance or, indeed, to well-meaning amateurs. From the White House view, it takes an imperial retinue to insure the president’s safety, his contact with the rest of the world, his access to staff and to the press.
The first step was to install sufficient links to the president’s global communications network so that from the Baker’s rustic homestead, Mr. Reagan and his aides could hook up instantaneously with anyone in Tennessee or in Washington or, for that matter, anyplace on earth. And Senator Baker’s ordinary telephone service was deemed grossly inadequate.
“They sent a technical crew in there, days ahead of time, and asked for fifty-six telephone circuits into my guesthouse,” Senator Baker recalled with a mixture of amusement and irritation. “And the poor little old telephone company out there, which is an independent telephone company, I don’t imagine had fifty-six telephone circuits or trunk lines for the whole community. But they dutifully put them in, and they drilled holes in my floor where they ran telephone cables up and which, to this day, are a matter of aggravation to my wife. They brought in a voice encoding machine, you know, one of these secure-line jobs, and put it in the room adjacent to the President’s. They set up a tie line, not one, but several direct tie lines to the White House switchboard. They had a direct tie-in to the airport, direct tie-in to the hospital, direct tie-in to the highway patrol.”
“The phone people really had nightmares,” echoed Larry Crowley, chief of the Huntsville Volunteer Fire Department. “For a little town like us, a small company like us, this was out of the ordinary,” said Charlie Welch, who put in the lines for the Highland Telephone Cooperative. “There were phones in places you’d never dream of putting phones, like outside the church.”
Then there was a debate over where to put the portable switchboard. The Army Signal Corps, which operates the president’s military communications network, arrived with a whole switchboard packed into a communications van, which they wanted to park beside the guesthouse. But Senator Baker, sensing his hospitality about to be desecrated, was adamant against scarring the pastoral setting. “I don’t want it there,” he declared. So the trailer was duly dispatched to a less prominent site near the senator’s dog pens, setting up howls from Mr. Baker’s beagle and his Saint Bernard. “The dogs were terribly perplexed by all this,” the senator recalled.
Although the Baker home seemed a particularly secluded spot in sparsely settled Huntsville, the Secret Service began throwing its security cloak over a large region about ten days ahead of time. Its agents lined up the Scott County sheriff and his deputies, plus the thirty volunteer firemen, to reinforce sizable detachments brought in from outside. Police dogs were sent to sniff for explosives in the Huntsville Presbyterian Church, where the Reagans were to attend Sunday services. Metal detectors were set up for the congregation. The president’s bulletproof limousine was flown to Knoxville and driven up to Huntsville for the short Sunday morning ride from the Baker home to the church. Secure space was set aside for a figure out of Dr. Strangelove: the military aide who carries what White House aides call the “football,” a briefcase full of secret codes available for ordering a launch of nuclear weapons, kept near the president twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.
On the bluff outside the guesthouse, the Secret Service mounted high-intensity floodlights to shine down onto the woods and river below. As May 1, the day of the Reagan’s visit, approached, the woods on both sides of the river and all around the Baker property were seeded with heavily armed federal and military security teams. “They had SWAT teams on the mountain, which is more than a mile from the guesthouse,” Senator Baker reported. “They had SWAT teams on the road. They had SWAT teams down below the bluff. I never saw so many people.”
By the time Saturday May 1 dawned, security barriers had been erected on all approaching roads. The fire department’s “attack pumper” truck took a position on the far edge of the Bakers’ lawn, the local volunteers flanked by a clutch of Secret Service agents. Some, according to the daily paper in Oneida, were clad in camouflage fatigues “not unlike a SWAT police unit you might see on television.”