Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Warming to the New Administration at the State Department, 1980-1981


Reagan_and_CarterAdministration transitions, during which power over the federal executive branch is transferred from the sitting president to the president-elect, can be stressful for federal personnel. During the weeks between Election Day and inauguration day, there can be changes in policy, staff and budgets, and the new administration needs to learn about the work of the executive branch. The transition from former President Jimmy Carter to incoming President Ronald Reagan in 1981 was jarring for some in the State Department as Carter’s strong prioritization of human rights gave way to his successor’s return to Cold War realpolitik in foreign policy.

Among those who witnessed the changes from within the State Department was Marc Grossman. After joining the Foreign Service in March 1976, his first overseas assignment was in Islamabad. He then returned to the Department, where he became the Special Assistant to the Special Advisor for Jewish Affairs in the White House.  When President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, Grossman was selected to be Liaison Officer to the Reagan Transition Team. He recalled his experiences with partisanship, personal interests, and patriotism during the transition in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in January 2006.

To read more about human rights, the Cold War, or Alexander Haig’s Fall from Grace, please follow the links.

 

“A new President has been elected and it is our job to help him succeed”

Marc Grossman, Liaison Officer to the Reagan Transition Team, 1980-1981

Grossman33GROSSMAN:  Just after the election and Carter’s loss [in 1980], Ray Seitz, then the Deputy Executive Secretary of the State Department, called me. He said, “I have a job for you, come see me.” (Grossman is at left.)

So I went to see Ray who said, “I want you to be the liaison officer for the Reagan transition team to the State Department.”

And I said, “What’s that mean?”

He said, “There’s going to be a transition team and there’s going to be somebody in charge of it and they’re going to sit down on the first floor in the transition space and they’re going to need to interact successfully with the building. A new President has been elected and it is our job to help him succeed. I’m going to assign you to sit across from a liaison officer from the State Department, that person’s going to be Tony Wayne,” who was then an Executive Secretariat Line Officer.

wayneRay said, “The two of you are going to sit in an office” — and they’d already figured all this out — “you’re going to sit in an office with desks that are looking at each other and the transition team is going to make requests and they’re going to come to you and you’re going to give them to Tony and Tony’s going to farm them out in the building. (Anthony Wayne is seen at right.)

Then they’re going to come back to Tony and Tony’s going to give them to you, and you’ll give them to the transition team. Go pack up your desk at the Old EOB [Executive Office Building], and come on over because this is going to start pretty soon.”

So I can remember going back and I told Al [Moses] and Al said, “Fine, there’s nothing more for you to do here.”

And I took a Xerox copy paper box and I put my few things in and I walked from the White House to the State Department and I went down to the first floor and I put my things on my new desk.

And, just like Ray Seitz had promised, Ambassador Robert Neumann turned up one day and he was the Reagan Transition Director at the State Department. He introduced himself and luckily I knew his son who was an FSO.

Robert Neumann was a kind and charming gentleman. Tony Wayne showed up and we decided we would do our best come what may.

“It was the first time I really saw an underside of the State Department”

New Picture (3)The first few days were quite amazing. Ambassador Neumann (seen left) came to work and he then brought in, as his deputy, Ambassador Carlton Coon. And so the two of them sat and tried to figure out what they were supposed to do. And each day more and more people would come to join the transition team.

Tony and [I] spent our days trying to find offices and telephones and help for all of these people who showed up, people from the Hill and people from here and people from there. And letters started to pour in.

It was the first time I really saw an underside of the State Department and the Foreign Service because FSOs would come down and slip their CVs under the door and say “I was really a Republican all these years.” And this thing just grew and grew and grew and it was very chaotic and hard to manage.

Bob Neumann and Carl Coon were doing their best. There were some serious sharks in that group of people who arrived. It went on like that for some weeks—I can’t remember how many weeks—and then one day, I think in December [1980] in the afternoon, we’re sitting there trying to do what we’re supposed to be doing.

Alexander Haig IIIt was freezing in our office. Tony and I were both sick the entire time. Poor Tony; I remember it was a cold winter and all the pipes burst in his house. We were sick as dogs; we couldn’t understand what was really happening. Then one day, as I say, after lunch, it was a Friday, [Secretary of State Alexander] Al Haig (seen right) shows up.

He instructs Tony and me to gather everybody in the big office. Tony and I went around to everybody and said, “General Haig would like to see everybody in this big office.”

Everybody piles in there and you can imagine they all thought they were going to get their assignments — Assistant Secretary this and Under Secretary that — and they pushed into this room. By the time Tony and I got there we were squeezed up against the back wall.

I want every one of you to clean out your desks and get out of here”

Haig looked out at this crowd and he looked at his watch and he said, whatever time it was, he said, “It’s Friday afternoon. I want every single one of you to go home and tell your wives and your children and your family that you have served America, that you have served America well. But, as of right now, this transition team is finished and I want every one of you to clean out your desks and get out of here, except for those two guys in the back.”

deskAnd everybody whipped around and there’s Tony and me. He repeated that he wanted everybody else out of there by COB (close of business).

This was really interesting. Truly, people had come in there expecting to get their assignments. Three remarkable things then happened. First of all, we were suddenly kind of big shots because Haig said, “Except for those two guys.”

So we went back to our office and wondered what we were supposed to do now. Second, it turned out that for a number of people in there—(Richard R) Rick Burt, Richard Perle, Richard Haas—they had been tipped off about all this in advance, they knew they were coming back on Monday.

So they wandered by and said, “This actually doesn’t apply to us.”

And we said, “Well, how the heck do we know that?”

And they said, “Just trust us.”

But by that time we didn’t trust anybody. Then (Robert Carl) Bud McFarlane arrived.

He was terrific, and we asked, “Can you help us here, because there are these people who say that they are supposed to come back on Monday.”

And he’d say, “Yes, yes, yes, yes to these specific people.”

So there was theater that had taken place. And the third thing was, all the people who were just shocked to be kicked out had no place else to go. And here we were, FSO-7s or sixes [junior rank Foreign Service Officers] or whatever, and now these big names were pleading with us to let them stay the weekend.

And we’d say, “Oh yes, yes, you may, that’s fine.”

“[He] dumped all of his laundry on my desk and said “Take this to the dry cleaners”

cy15The human clash in all of this — that was really something to see. And on Monday morning Al Haig came and there was a slimmed-down transition team and they got ready and took over on the 20th of January. Tony became Haig’s Foreign Service Special Assistant.

Some said: “Get me a list of all the Democratic FSOs so we can get rid of them.”

It was really an eye-opening thing, and it was a very important lesson as a young officer to see it and to learn to resist this kind of politicization of the FSO corps.

Some people assumed we were so junior that we didn’t have any political views and could help them understand the State Department and the Foreign Service. Others treated us with great suspicion because we were Foreign Service Officers.

We’d go by and they’d close the door. One particular team member in the first group wanted to have a huge number of telephone lines in his office. I think he monitored other people’s calls. He didn’t want to have anything to do with us.

04-pile-of-shirtsOther people came and thought we were, I don’t know, dogs-bodies. I can remember one person, who became an Assistant Secretary of State, dumped all of his laundry on my desk and said, “Take this to the dry cleaners.”

I said, “Take it to the dry cleaners yourself.”

And he said, “Well, I’m so and so.”

I said, “I don’t care who you are. Get your shirts off my desk.”

And so it was kind of a very odd collection of people. I admired the way Bob Neumann tried to manage this, but he was undercut. It took Bud McFarlane to bring order.

They’d [the Republican Party] won the election. They’d won and they were coming to take their due.

They were coming down to make sure that the people’s will, as they understood, was going to get followed.

Just go get somebody to turn the hot water on today please and say we did it”

That’s one of the things that was most interesting about it. For some of the new people… as they promoted their policies, they were also promoting themselves. Fair enough.

That’s how I got to see how our government really operated; there was an election, Ronald Reagan was President and so I got to see it at the real knocking-heads level. Lots of the people who then came with Haig became the Assistant Secretaries and Under Secretaries as he joined the State Department.

spigotAs we speak here today, I’ve come to think that the idea that the Department leans Democratic is wrong. I think that many Foreign Service Officers are moderate Republicans. I think that Ronald Reagan got plenty of votes at the State Department, in the same way that I think that President Bush 41 got plenty of votes at the State Department.

Also, I was pretty impressed, especially being at the low end of this, by how seriously people took their oath to serve the President. I can remember Haig called Tony and me in one afternoon and he said, “I want to make a good impression here. What are the three or four things I can do to send a signal out to the State Department that I want the people here to feel that they’re working for somebody who cares about them?”

I can remember saying to the General, “You’re going to throw me out of the office for saying this, but you know what you can really do to make a huge difference?”

This was early in January. He said, “What?”

I said, “Could you please turn the hot water back on in this place?”

[At]t the time, because of the energy crisis, President Carter had turned off all of the hot water in the buildings.

And Haig said, “We’re not going to wait.” He said, “Just go get somebody to turn the hot water on today please and say we did it.”

“They were just called up and told that they were no longer federal employees”

christopherSome people were scared because that first group of people who came before Haig was so aggressive, but I think mostly once Haig got there and once Bud got there, people recognized in them people interested in serving the nation with backgrounds we could understand.

[B]ut you know the other place—and it hurt me in particular—was that Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Hal Saunders were in Algiers until the 20th of January and I thought the way they were treated on the 20th of January— they were just called up and told that they were no longer federal employees—was really poor.

I think that many of the people who came with Haig felt that these negotiations with Iran had been a terrible sign of weakness; they wanted it to be over with. And you remember that day, the 20th of January: there was a split screen on TV of Reagan being inaugurated and our people coming home. I think both Mr. Christopher and Hal never got the credit they deserved for helping bring our people home.

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