The Government Man (retired) is back from vacation and ready to blog again, posting excerpts from my book, Confessions of a Government Man: How to Succeed in Any Bureaucracy.
A few blogs back I told the story of how, as a trainee, by default I essentially made the decision on the sequence of funding for the Buffalo and Rochester, New York federal buildings. The issue was long behind me when, out of the clear, it resurfaced years later. Thankfully, I had no direct involvement in this adventure.
It was towards the end of Richard M. Nixon’s first term in office, when the White House again wanted to horn in on upstate politics and get some publicity. Remember, the planning for the Buffalo and Rochester buildings came during the Johnson years but this was not going to stop the Nixon White House from reaping the benefits.
It was déjà vu all over again. The White House (It’s always The White House, never a named individual.) called the GSA administrator; the administrator called the commissioner; the commissioner called the regional administrator; the regional administrator called the regional commissioner who in turn called the director of real estate; the director called his branch chief. The branch chief was out as was the senior technician so the question eventually went to an advanced trainee. Not me this time.
The trainee panicked a bit when told that information was needed for the White House.
“Which White House?”
“Our White House.” That sure clarified things.
The question from the White House was whether we had an event in upstate New York for the president to attend. The subtlety behind this was the president’s political advisors recommendation that he show some attention to the area. Our commissioner in Washington knew we had some completed and near completed buildings which would be ideal for a politically motivated presidential visit. These events always provide a friendly audience and an opportunity to flaunt the administration’s commitment to an area by it’s spending for a new building, even though it was originated during the previous administration.
When the trainee was asked by the ever-intimidating Alex (my boss) which project would be better for a dedication, Buffalo or Rochester, between his nervousness and the lack of clarity of the question he completely misread the issue. His guess was Rochester because it was a smaller and less troublesome project, oblivious to the fact that it was well behind Buffalo in construction. It was nowhere near completion whereas the Buffalo building was completed and occupied.
Rochester was passed up the line faster than a Domino pizza delivery and by the end of the day we were planning for a spring dedication in Rochester, which by now was on the president’s calendar. The whole plan fell apart when Charlie (our section supervisor) returned and offered that Rochester was a year from completion. It was Buffalo that was ready for a formal dedication.
Now the agency felt a collective embarrassment and was ready to institute its policy of finding some poor slob to pin blame on when disaster strikes. When the GSA Administrator heard of this faux pas he was determined that we were not going back to the White House to admit an error. White House appointees, like him, never make errors. He was determined that there would be a dedication in Rochester, completed building or not.
With that command the region planned for what amounted to a bogus dedication. I was not part of management at the time so my recollection is from a non-participant’s viewpoint and from stories which were told to me later on, mainly at cocktail hours.
The first thought was to take the president to Buffalo but tell him it was Rochester. This was dismissed quickly. So it was decided that the Rochester dedication would go on as planned, even if there was nothing to dedicate. People would be coming to see the president, not the building, so as long as it didn’t rain, we could keep people out of the building and hold the festivities on the plaza.
It was like preparing for an opening night on Broadway. We had a few months to get the show rehearsed and the sets built. Since the exterior was complete the task was not as bad as it could have been. All we had to do was complete the lobby and hope nobody wanted to tour the upper floors. Morton Berkowitz (a/k/a Sporty Morty in deference to his thrift), the project engineer and a tough negotiator, began to negotiate change orders to accelerate completion of the lobby. It’s tough to negotiate with sharks when you have no leverage. Morty did the best he could although this one cost the taxpayers dearly.
Then all the president’s advance men got into the act.
Advance Man One came and directed that the bleacher seating go on the east side of the outside walkway. Morty objected, citing that the afternoon sun would be in the eyes of the spectators. Advance Man One insisted on placement in his designated location. Then Advance Man Two came and didn’t like the angle of the sun in the afternoon and demanded that the seats be removed and reinstalled on the opposite side of the walkway, just as Sporty Morty had recommended. A few days later Advance Man Three came. I guess he was the executive advance man. He checked out the sun, the moon, the wind velocity and the view and then ordered that the bleacher seating be returned to its original position.
The other contribution of the three advance men was that at the last minute they collectively decided that they didn’t like the color of the rope on the flagpole. The Coast Guard color guard was dispatched to find a more suitable rope. After scouring the downtown area they eventually found what they needed at an Army-Navy surplus store. They rigged up a new gaudy gold rope only minutes before the arrival of the president.
The GSA people and all the president’s advance men were so caught up with the action that they failed to notice that directly across the street stood the offices of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. In front of the building their reporters were taking copious notes of these strange maneuvers while their photographers took pictures of the entire nonsense unfolding on the plaza. As indicated by its name, the paper had not supported Nixon.
The dedication miraculously went off without a hitch. Nobody got past the lobby to observe the unfinished condition of the building and fortunately nobody asked when the building would actually be occupied. It was no surprise that the day after the “dedication” the paper said little about Nixon’s speech. They did, however, run a series of photos showing the bleachers, first here and then there and then here again. They also had a photo of a bunch of guys in suits watching a solitary uniformed coast guardsman scaling the flagpole to change ropes.
The building was completed and ready for occupancy close to a year later. The president did not attend the grand opening.