Bertram Lance appointed budget director

The different names that different countries give to their officers of state are so familiar as English and yet meaningless as jobs that most of us – most of you certainly – confronted with the blinding news that Bertram Lance has been appointed Director of the Office of Management and Budget, must think, 'Mm. Fancy that! I wonder what that can mean.' Especially when you know that the United States has also a Secretary of the Treasury who's the American counterpart of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I get the same, glazed feeling around the eyes when I hear that a certain country has a new fiscal procurator though, I must say, the only time I found myself in Ethiopia, I had an itch to gaze on the head of the Christian Church who goes under the fascinating title of His Beatitude the Abuna of Abyssinia.

I bring this up because I've just made a flying transatlantic visit and been reading English newspapers and all of them reported Mr Lance's appointment but in none that I saw was there any hint of what his job entails, how it encroaches on the Treasury, if at all, and why it should be such a big deal. The Secretary of State is another thing, everybody knows by now that, in any country that has that title, it signifies exactly what in England is known as the Foreign Secretary. But I'd like to... to tell you a story that illustrates the power of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and shows that even Americans who've been in government for years have only the faintest notion of that power until they come up against it. 

I know an able New Englander, now in his sixties who was twice governor of his state, an influential Democrat and one who, at the Democrats' convention in Chicago in 1956 was obsessed with a most peculiar bee in the bonnet. He had the odd notion that Senator John F. Kennedy – who at that time, what with his pompadour hairdo and infectious grin was sometimes known as the Frank Sinatra of the Democratic Party – this man had the idea that Kennedy would one day be president. Well, the story of the 1956 convention is a simple one. Adlai Stevenson was easily nominated for a second run against Eisenhower and, incidentally, lost worse than he did the first time. Stevenson did a strange thing, something that outraged the party veterans. He thought that the choice of a vice president ought to go to the convention floor and a vote, something that simply is never done. What always happens is whether the presidential choice has entailed a brawl or simply a coronation, the nominee retires on the last night to a smoky room, a bunch of campaign advisers had drawn up for him a list of men – could be 16 or 20 – who they think could make a good vice president. The big man probably doesn't know more than a third of them by sight. I remember standing outside such a room very early in the morning in Chicago in 1952. At about three am an Eisenhower adviser came out and said, 'It's Nixon.' 'It's what?' we said. And in Miami in 1968 we waited again and who should come out with the glad tidings but the Republican presidential choice himself, Richard Nixon. Flashing his adorable grin, he said he'd picked a man of great ability and wisdom, just the man to take command on the bridge if the worst should befall. Most of us had six or seven names down on paper but if we'd had a hundred, I doubt that many of us would have got it right. 'The man,' he said, 'is Governor Spiro Agnew.' 'Spiro who?’ the country echoed. 

Well, in 1956, Stevenson defied this ancient custom of the smoke-filled room, infuriated the bosses by talking about democracy and said he wanted to see the whole convention pick his vice president. The balloting that followed was the only exciting part of that or many previous or subsequent conventions. Two or three names were put in nomination and everybody thought it must go to Stevenson's most determined rival in the primaries, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, which it eventually did but at one time Kennedy came up from nowhere and there was a thrilling ballot when he almost made it. But not quite. He lost and he was grateful ever after because sitting vice presidents very rarely indeed wind up in the White House by election, only by the mischance of death. 

Well, when it was all over, I had supper with my New England governor and he adopted a look of inscrutable wisdom and got off a sentence that produced raucous laughter all around the board. 'The big man for 1960,' he said, 'is John F. Kennedy.' And from that day on he worked to make it so and, of course, he was right. And since politicians, whether religious or heathen, expect to get their rewards in this world, he was the first man Kennedy appointed to a Cabinet post in the waiting interval between the election and the inauguration. He was a proud and glowing man, I can tell you. A Cabinet officer at the elbow of the President of the United States. Well, he resigned in less than a year to run for the Senate from his home state and he won, and he's still there now in his third term, a senator as a six-year term. 

Well at Christmas time 1962, after he'd been elected senator, he was down in Palm Beach, lazing and golfing, after the strenuous horrors of the campaign. I was down there too because Kennedy and the whole White House crew spent Christmas at Father Kennedy's place in Palm Beach, and one evening I had dinner with the senator and naturally wanted to know what had caused this sudden change of heart, why he'd quit the Cabinet and gone for the Senate? 'Do you know,' he said, 'who's President of the United States?' I hinted I was under the impression it was John F. Kennedy. 'No!' he roared, 'Not when I was there. It's David Bell!' 

David Bell was then Director of the Bureau of the Budget, which is the old name for what is now the Office of Management and Budget. The senator then told a heartrending story of his disillusion in the majesty and influence of an American Cabinet officer, the general complaint being that, first of all, you don't see much of the president, the Cabinet doesn't meet regularly. 'Weeks go by,' he said, 'maybe months'. And then you rouse yourself and say I'll show him! You work out a bill for him to send to Congress, a grand, enlightened bill whereby, say, everybody over sixty is guaranteed a cottage and a minimum wage, pregnant wives stay home with compensation, big subsidies to the states, guarantee a free university education for everybody – well, you will appreciate that I'm parodying the senator's bill but only in scale. It was a thoughtful, humane bill and was going to cost a packet. And what you do is draft the bill, make a guess at the cost and then send it not to the president – he'll get a copy one day – but to the Director of the Budget. He looks it over, he makes his own calculations about cost, looks at other bills put up by other party members in Congress, then he gets back to you, or he doesn't. 

'Weeks and weeks went by,' the senator said. Nothing from the president and one day Bell calls and says, 'About that big welfare bill of yours, great stuff! There's just one thing, you figured it would cost about $150 million, we figure a little differently. If you could shave it here and there, we'd say it could go forward for, say, $12 million.' End of bill. End of the senator's grand illusions about being a Cabinet officer. 

The senator asked me how things worked in England and it fell to me to tell him as tactfully as possible that whereas England has a Cabinet form of government, the United States does not. The Constitution says nothing about it. Unfortunately the word was picked up from England. It would have been better, more accurate if the Americans had called their Cabinet 'Cronies given their due reward and now on call for advice' or 'Don't call us, we'll call you'. And yet, because in parliamentary countries the composition of the Cabinet is vital to the system and because most political reporters in the United States have no other hard news to report on between election and the new man coming in, we all fall for the delusion that the Cabinet appointments in America are vital too. Secretary of State, yes. The Treasury, yes. Maybe when the farmers bellow loud enough, Agriculture, yes. But the real Cabinet is what they call 'a kitchen' Cabinet – that little group of old buddies that every president brings into the White House, that eats and argues and works with the president night and day. 

Kennedy once got a slightly whimpering letter from Vice President Lyndon Johnson who, like all vice presidents once they take the oath, was out in the cold and not much consulted. 'I can sympathise with how he feels', said Kennedy, 'but the only people you must see all the time, in this job are the guys who see the overnight cables.' And so it is. 

What we ought to be asking is, who will be the Carter mafia? Who the Walt Rostow, the Ted Sorensen, the Larry O'Brian? And send up a prayer they will not be the John Ehrlichmans and the John Mitchells and the H. R. Haldemans! 

Once the inauguration’s over, I predict you will hear very little of the Cabinet, except Secretary of State Vance, Secretary of the Treasury, maybe, and, of course the President of the United States, Bertram Lance, Director of the Office of Management and Budget. 

Well apart from appointments, there've been a couple of interesting elections. Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts, a Democrat, is to be the new Speaker of the House, and why should that interest any foreigner? Because the Speaker is not a figurehead presiding over procedure. He's the incumbent party's new leader in Congress. He's Michael Foot, and if anything happens to the president and vice president, he's President of the United States. O'Neill that is, not Foot. The other election was that of Billy Carter, the jolly brother who runs a petrol station in Plains who ran against the incumbent mayor, the town barber. And he lost by 90-71. And he made the most succinct and forthright statement of a beaten candidate since William F. Buckley, the witty Conservative, lost his fight for Mayor of New York to John Lindsay. 

Billy Carter said, 'I lost the black vote and the white vote and the Baptist vote. Plains is going straight to hell.' 

Mr Buckley, in his time, never had a prayer against the glamorous, at that time, John Lindsay and early on election night, a supporter shouted out from the crowd, 'What's the first thing you'll do if you're elected mayor?' Buckley said, 'I shall demand a recount.' 

You may wonder, by the way, whatever happened to John Lindsay? Well he came, like Ronald Reagan, to a lowly end. He became a radio commentator. Sometimes I feel I should run for president, I could always wind up where I started.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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