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The Sins of Donald Regan : He Bucks the Establishment, Stands Firm for the President

December 08, 1986|PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS | Paul Craig Roberts served under Donald T. Regan as assistant secretary of the Treasury during President Reagan's first term. He now holds the William E. Simon chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University

Donald T. Regan is on the ropes, and, with everyone calling for his resignation, it is not impossible that he could be knocked out of the ring. An obituary may soon be in order, but I have come neither to bury Regan nor to praise him. What concerns me is not whether he stays or goes, but the nasty process through which a nasty town creates nasty reputations for those whom it doesn't like.

Regan certainly has a nasty reputation. And it is equally undeniable that he asked for it. Less well known are his true sins that spurred Washington's reputation industry to single him out for especially rough treatment.

Foremost among these, Regan never made the obligatory tip of the hat to the Washington Establishment. A revolutionary Reaganaut might disdain the Establishment for the paralysis and humiliation that it has inflicted on a once-proud country, but for Regan it was a simpler matter: His ego crowded the Establishment out of his universe. He does not even pay deference by presenting himself at the requisite dinner parties.

Nothing so infuriates power-brokers as to deprive them of their opportunities to instruct the government on proper personnel and policies. By being his own man, Regan deprived movers and shakers of the valuable commodity of access and drew every long knife in town. Those accustomed to buying and selling everything, including the government, found Regan's massive ego to be both barrier and affront.

Regan's other chief sin is his undented determination to carry out President Reagan's program. From the standpoint of the Democrats in Congress, ideologues in the media and Regan's peers in the Administration who were prepared to take advantage of the President's hands-off management to pursue their own agendas (or that of their bureaucracies), Regan's determination was always in the way. It mattered not whether his steadfastness was based on belief, loyalty or a perceived path to power.

Regan's problems began in earnest in the autumn of 1981, when the Treasury single-handedly broke up a carefully orchestrated plan to maneuver the President into calling for a tax increase in his 1982 State of the Union address. Close on the heels of the historic tax-rate reduction signed only a few months before, such an extraordinary flip-flop would have unraveled Reagan's presidency and left the government free to pursue business as usual.

When people found that they could not get around Regan, they determined to drive him from the Treasury. But when that campaign ended he emerged as chief of staff of the White House. The in-crowd in Washington is used to being able to bump off people without a hitch. But this guy Regan was proving to be bulletproof.

The campaign against Regan bogged down in confusion. Many didn't know whether to run scared or to redouble their efforts. A few reasoned that now that he had all the power, he would get himself. His ego, they bet, would preclude a powerfully staffed White House necessary to keep an activist agenda out of trouble.

With the President himself hurt by the scheme to fund the Nicaraguan resistance with arms sales to Iran, everyone smells Regan's blood. Even right-wing Republicans, some of whom are not short on arrogance themselves, are advising that Reagan must save himself by jettisoning Regan.

This advice pleases many ears, but the minute Regan is gone the mob will begin clawing at Reagan. If Regan has to go, let it be with an indictment, and not because he refused to pimp-up to the press and toady to the Establishment. A guy without any supporters in the cesspool that is Washington can't be all compost.

If Regan is tarred with arms sales to Iran, so be it--though the scheme seems to predate his tenure as chief of staff. Whatever Regan's responsibility turns out to be, however, he most failed the President when, after wresting power from pragmatists, he did not renew the Reagan revolution by replenishing its ranks with principled adherents.

Regan never bent to Washington, but he acquiesced to the forces that deprived the Administration of "inflexible" voices of principle. The pragmatist takeover of the Reagan Administration, cheered on by the media, cleared the decks for the dealmakers, who promptly lost their way in the shifting winds of pragmatic policies. The lesson for good government is clear: Inflexible principle makes fewer deals, but better ones.

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