April 03, 2014
Before the memory
of James R.
Schlesinger slips into murky posterity, let’s spend some time bashing the
Until the dawn
of the Cold War, Washington’s
Wise Men were WASPS with backgrounds in law or on Wall Street. But when the
federal government appointed itself the planet’s perpetual protector from
communism, the brain trust needed legions of fresh recruits. There
was so much to do!
tankers, cabinet secretaries, and presidential “special assistants” still
needed Ivy League pedigrees -- Schlesinger had three sheepskins from Harvard --
but Irishmen and Italians were allowed into the club. Mormons and Jews, too.
(Schlesinger converted to Lutheranism in his early twenties.) Work histories
diversified, as bankers, stockbrokers, and lawyers were joined by economists, industrialists,
professorship at the University of Virginia brought Schlesinger to the attention of RAND. “Everything
about him,” wrote Fred Kaplan in The
Wizards of Armageddon, “spelled ‘defense intellectual’ -- the slightly
jaded sensibility, the whiff of arrogance, the pipe-puffing affectation of cool
insouciance.” A job with Nixon’s Bureau of the Budget came next, followed
by the chairmanship of the Atomic
Energy Commission, then a brief stint as CIA director. In July 1973, Schlesinger
took the reins of the Pentagon.
tenure at DOD, Schlesinger presided over a truly deranged “contingency plan.”
Amidst the Yom Kippur War
crisis in October 1973 -- Israel
attacked by its neighbors, oil exports to the U.S.
halted by the Middle East’s petrocracies -- he plotted
to invade and occupy one or more nations in the Persian Gulf region.
Schlesinger scheduled the assault for late November. Iran was pressed for logistical
help, an aircraft carrier moved into position, and thousands of Marines, who
had conducted desert maneuvers the previous summer, prepared to go ashore.
amphibious task force fell behind schedule. In the meantime, Israel survived, courtesy American taxpayers,
and the oil embargo crumbled.
Gerald Ford in November 1975, Schlesinger participated in the revival of the “Committee on the
Present Danger,” a group of ultra-hawks who claimed that the Soviet Union’s military buildup was “reminiscent of Nazi
Germany’s rearmament in the 1930s.” It lambasted the CIA for failing to conclude
that the U.S.S.R. was on its way to insurmountable superiority. Time hasn’t
been kind to the committee’s paranoiacs. As former Reagan administration
defense official Lawrence Korb noted in 2004,
“the Soviet threat had been substantially overestimated in the CIA’s annual
Schlesinger brought his blundering to the Carter administration, as the president’s
energy czar. (Oil was no longer a commodity, but an issue of “national
security.”) Present at the department’s creation, he became the first Secretary
an economist, but he didn’t understand energy markets at all. Rather than immediately
implement both broad deregulation and the end of price controls, the legislation
crafted by the Carter administration expanded
government’s destructive meddling. Conservation and efficiency -- fine when voluntarily
pursued by individuals and businesses, unwise when mandated by D.C. -- became
a fetish. Hugely wasteful subsidies flowed to “alternative” energy.
In 1979, an
auto executive told NEWSWEEK that Schlesinger
was a “crisis creator.” No kidding. The secretary embraced the laughable notion
that the world was rapidly being drained of its hydrocarbons. Fired once again,
his parting address wailed that “the energy future is bleak and likely to grow
bleaker in the decade ahead.” (It didn’t.)
obtuseness ran so deep that as late as 2010,
he continued to peddle peak-oil nonsense. At the birth of the fracking
revolution, which could make the U.S. a crude exporter sometime soon, he failed to understand that the war
between resource cornucopians and the-end-is-nigh alarmists was over, and that the
optimists had prevailed.
Michael Knox Beran warned of the kind of culture that produced Schlesinger: “By exalting a
public-service ethos, we encourage the idea that those who have been initiated
in it traditions, with their fancy degrees and vast experience of the cursus honorum, possess a preternatural
power to oversee the nation’s great leaps forward.”
The days of
the towering technocrat are over. The federal treasury is empty. Washington’s “great
leaps forward” are behind it. Scrounging the money to pay off debt, clear
Social Security checks, and pay Medicare bills will occupy the federal
government for an unknowable number of decades.
Schlesinger wasn’t the worst “public servant.” But like his presidential
bosses, the pompous professor would have benefited from a strong injection of
You can always
tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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