An Anatomy of a White House Appointment: Can the Best Man (or Woman) Win?
05/25/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
Despite its convincing electoral mandate and its oft-repeated resolve to "hit the ground running," the Reagan administration has been notably tardy in assembling its management team. Well into the President's second 100 days, some 40 percent of appointive positions in the Cabinet departments and government agencies have yet to be filled. There are many reasons. Right-wingers like North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms have insisted on ideological purity in appointees; the President's own political guru, Lyn Nofziger, has screened contenders for personal loyalty to Reagan; and dozens of powerful lobbies and wielders of patronage have pushed forward—or shot down—prospects. A textbook case in point is the $60,662.50-a-year director of the Veterans Administration. Robert Nimmo, 59, who goes before the Senate for confirmation next month, is admittedly nobody's first choice for the job. At least three other men were led to believe they had the post—and more than a dozen others were considered for it. "It turned into a public farce," steams Jimmy Carter's now-departed VA chief, Max Cleland. "It shows the seamy side of veterans' politics." This is an anatomy of that appointment as dissected by PEOPLE'S Margie Bonnett:
The Machiavellian process began last fall, when the new Administration planned to nominate former Ohio Congressman Bill Ayres, 65, to the VA job. Ayres, who organized veterans for the Republican National Committee—but spent only six months on active duty at the end of World War II—had earned his shot by successfully persuading the 1.9 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars to give its first political endorsement ever to Ronald Reagan. But then Ayres' appointment unexpectedly foundered when Iran released America's hostages. "The Administration pushed the panic button when the hostages came home," claims Ayres, who recalls that "the Vietnam veterans said, 'Why are you paying all this attention to the hostages? You didn't do anything for us.' And the White House thought, 'We've got to offset this.' " So the non-Vietnam vet Ayres was dropped from the White House list.
Enter John Behan, 36, a New York State assemblyman and a double amputee whose legs were blown off by a land mine in Vietnam in 1966. He enlisted the support of New York freshman Sen. Al d'Amato and CIA Director William Casey for the VA post—and set off in January for an interview with E. Pendleton James, a Reagan personnel staffer. "He said I was exactly what the White House wanted," Behan notes. On February 20, the New York Times reported he would be appointed. In an address at a Republican fund raiser on Long Island the previous evening, the President's daughter Maureen referred to him as the next VA director. He had delivered an emotional speech acknowledging his impending appointment. But Ayres' supporters had not given up. Hours before, as the President, flying to California, was about to sign a paper nominating Behan, Rep. Tom Evans of Delaware had phoned the aircraft to quash the appointment. "Pen James said we had trouble from Congress," Behan remembers. "There was the feeling of 'Let's take care of our buddies; someday we'll all be former congressmen looking for a job.' "
Stymied, the White House soon began looking for other candidates. Among the most prominent was Lt. Gen. John Flynn, once the country's top-ranking POW in Vietnam. But Flynn demurred. "All in all," he explained, "I'd rather play golf."
Next up in late March was James Webb, 35. A Vietnam vet and author of the acclaimed war novel Fields of Fire, Webb is minority counsel on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. Because of his candidacy, Webb postponed some publicity appearances for his second novel, A Sense of Honor. But then Webb apparently torpedoed his own candidacy by publicly criticizing Budget Director David Stockman, who had proposed deep cuts in the VA budget. The much-decorated former Marine captain could hardly conceal his differences with ex-war resister Stockman. "I don't admire what he did in the '60s," Webb says. "But that doesn't mean I couldn't work with him." The White House now denies Webb was in the running. "He was never considered," insists James. "The candidate for the last month was Bob Nimmo." "That's absurd," replies Webb.
Nimmo—a former federal employee, veteran of World War II and Korea, and a former California legislator—had the qualities the Reagan people by now valued most of all: loyalty and political acceptability. "My priority," he says, "is to assist the President in cutting back on government and reducing federal spending." He has met tepid applause from veterans' groups—and open skepticism in Washington. "On the upside," says one insider, "Nimmo will have access beyond Stockman. On the downside, he won't know what to take beyond Stockman." Predictably, the three men who had spent the last few months in the White House's revolving door are bitter. "I guess they want someone who will take orders, not administrate," says Ayres. "Quite frankly," adds Webb, "the process became demeaning." As Behan now ruefully advises: "If the White House calls and offers you a job, hang up."