Chapter 1 DRAFT

Book for release 2015. All rights reserved. Copyright (c) 2103, 2014
For web use only. A phoenix depicted in book of mythological creatures by FJ Bertuch (1747–1822). Source: Wikipedia

Hope of the Phoenix  

Reawakening America's Humanitarian Spirit (1979-1986) 

by James N. Purcell, Jr. 

Chapter One early draft:



Vietnam showed up on my professional radar during the Nixon Administration’s first year. Hopes had risen, then stalled, over Nixon's campaign claims to end the Vietnam War by a “secret plan.” I was 31 years old, a husband and father with a fast-rising career, specializing in fiscal management and budget analysis. 

Like many Americans, I saw the Vietnam War as a painful chapter in America’s history that just needed to end, and fast. The year before, I had been hired by the Bureau of the Budget, known in Washington shorthand as BOB (later named Office of Management and Budget). I worked on Vietnam budget items, among others. 

It was almost seven years since I had graduated from the MPA program at The Maxwell School of Public Affairs, Syracuse, New York, where my wife and I spent our first year of marriage. The Atomic Energy Commission interviewed me there, and my career began with the AEC in 1962, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My wife and I moved from New York to Oak Ridge and lived not far from the Oak Ridge National Lab and Y12 Plant. At our third wedding anniversary, we left Oak Ridge with our two-year-old and three-week-old daughters to move to Maryland for my new job at AEC headquarters in Germantown. 

About two years later, the Agency for International Development hired me at its headquarters in downtown Washington, and I traveled a bit in the Far East, until a reduction-in-force left a bunch of us, the "last hired," scrambling for new positions.

That was when I began to work at the President’s Budget office, the Bureau of the Budget, located next door to the White House West Wing. It was a fast-paced office and a hard job, which I loved.  

White House Press Conference
One day Joe Laitin*1,  the Budget Bureau's counterpart to the White House press secretary, called me about a White House press briefing. It was early in the new Nixon administration, and Joe’s job was to keep the public and his BOB staff informed on the new administration’s fiscal policies and budget proposals. Joe was a respected former member of the national press corps.

The last thing on my mind at the start of that day, and probably the same for Joe, had been Vietnam. It was recent history that Vietnam War problems, with American forces involved, had ended President Johnson’s hopes for a second term. 

The new press secretary Ron Ziegler would run the meeting. My colleagues and I had worked long days, most nights, and every week-end for several months to prepare the president’s budget, crunching numbers, writing speeches, and liaising with federal agencies. In a time before office computers, we were expected to know, line-by-line and number-by-number, every agency proposal for each assigned U.S. government department, bureau, and program. We analyzed and kept tabs on evolving line items and balance sheets, possible congressional legislation, fiscal policies, and implications as we coordinated the physical preparation of the president's annual budget.

I had overseen parts of President Johnson’s final budget, assigned to the special tax and spend proposal analysis forecast, the so-called deficit/surplus analysis.

In those days, I felt as comfortable as a fish in water.

BOB press secretary Joe Laitin called early one morning. “Jim, Ziegler is having a press conference today at the White House. (*2) Would you like to go?" I jumped at the chance. Joe added that Nixon’s first supplemental appropriations request to the Congress would come up. Of course I wanted to go. I had coordinated that supplemental proposal.

Joe stopped by, I jumped up to grab my coat, and he commented, "This will be a good experience for you to witness this…. I don’t think the press will have major questions about the supplemental. It’s pretty straightforward.”

We reached the press room before ten, and I could sense the big import of that small room. There was Sam Hughes, BOB’s deputy director, and Ron Ziegler sat facing front at a U-shaped desk. He had a phone receiver in each hand.

Ziegler spotted Sam and Joe and motioned them forward. I went along and heard Joe tell Ziegler that we were there as backup on budget matters.   

"I’m glad you’re here,” Ron said. “Take a seat and I’ll call on you if I need help.” 

He returned to the phones where, I later learned, he was in conversation with secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare [HEW, later HHS] and Defense. When Ziegler hung up, he straightened papers on the desk and signaled an aide to open the door.

The press corps flooded in, and I recognized faces from television and newspaper bylines. Ziegler read a list of Administration announcements and initiatives. He and the press played verbal ping-pong at length about different issues. He explained a budget item in Sam’s bailiwick, but did not need to call on him. Sam left, and Joe and I stayed, engrossed in watching the back and forth between Ron Zeigler and the press. 

As the briefing appeared to wind down, Joe leaned over and said: “Things seem to be going well. I’m going back to the office... Jim, I’m sure nothing will come up about the Supplemental.”  

I didn’t say anything but took note that Sam had left and now Joe was leaving.   

About thirty minutes later, Ron announced that the President had signed his first budget supplemental appropriations request that day, and it was already on its way to Congress. He said, "There’s nothing controversial here, just routine business. Copies are on the back table.”
I thought Ron looked pleased. He began to call the conference to a close, and then a reporter in the back raised his hand. Ziegler recognized him.

“I’ve just read this Supplemental briefly,” the journalist said, “and I notice an item under ‘Special Southeast Asia Operations’ that shows a reduction of more than $200 million.”

Ziegler glanced at notes, and I knew they were my notes provided for this meeting.

Routine Housekeeping

“What’s that item for?” the questioner pressed.

“It’s just routine housekeeping,” said Ziegler. “DOD (Department of Defense) has found miscellaneous savings in its Southeast Asia operations. They can be used to help reduce pending appropriations requests in other parts of the budget. That’s it.”

Southeast Asia, to the press, meant Vietnam. The words sparked new suspicion among the press. For weeks and months, news organizations had been waiting for information about the new president’s campaign claim—a secret plan to end the Vietnam War.
“What specifically is being cut? Which line items?” one reporter asked. Other questions flew fast, and the previously orderly meeting showed signs toward pandemonium.

A nearby journalist whispered aloud to a colleague, “I hear the National Security Adviser (Kissinger) has scheduled a press conference soon.” Keen ears missed nothing, and a spontaneous chorus arose: “This is probably the budgetary impact of the secret plan soon to be revealed.” 

Ziegler looked befuddled. Things had been going well and now were unraveling. At first, I thought he was uncertain what to do. And then he pulled a straw: “We have a representative from the BOB here, who put this package together. He can come up and explain this item.”
Ron Ziegler’s straw had my name on it. 

My bosses had already left, right? I held my breath and somehow made it to the front of the room. I read the words in the supplemental, but the hungry press was not satisfied.  I tried to explain that all federal operations are reviewed monthly, and operations of DOD’s magnitude inevitably develop miscellaneous savings. Those are bundled together and, where possible, offered as reductions to pending multi-billion appropriations requests. And so on.

My reasonable answer only fueled suspicion. It seemed that a powerful group-think was taking over. The inquirers seemed convinced that Nixon’s secret plan was about to be revealed. I felt I could almost hear them thinking: This supplemental appropriations request represents the secret plan’s first budgetary implications. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s notional press conference for the next day reinforced the idea.

Defense or National Security

The President's new press man had lost control of the press conference and turned to me again and directed me in an urgent tone: “Call DOD for clarification.”

I left, found a phone, and called Ray Clark. He was amazed to learn about the ruckus. He kept me on hold and called Ellis Veatch, chief of BOB’s National Security Division.  Back with me, Ray said that Ellis had grumbled, “It’s just routine business. Tell them I’m not going to bother the Secretary of Defense with such trivia.”
When I returned to Ziegler empty-handed, the uproar had not died down, and Ron seemed eager to welcome me back to take some of the heat. I reminded the press corps of the normalcy of this situation, but they stood firm in disbelief.
“A list of specific line items proposed for reduction will be available for you soon,” I said, while knowing that they probably saw me as the career stooge put out there to keep them in the dark. 

Addressing the front press row I said in a low voice, “Believe me, folks, if the President and national security adviser have a secret plan, they wouldn’t use me to unveil it.  I just work here.” 

Ziegler called the meeting to a close minutes later and motioned for me to come to his desk.  “Sorry,” he said, “but that’s the White House press corps. They believe little and question everything.” 

Back to Base   

I walked back over to BOB and immediately got a summons to Director Bob Mayo’s office. I thought the director was likely to be concerned that John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, two tough Nixon aides, might come after him because of the briefing. However, with a worried look, he said, “Good job, Jim.”

Phone calls from the press flooded the White House, NSC, DOD and BOB. Our phones kept ringing for some time. Ray Clark told me there were some requests to interview me. 
“I think you had better take a few days off, Jim, and let this cool down,” he said.
That evening my wife and I had a guest at our house for dinner, but I felt in a fog. I was a young civil servant suddenly nervous, dismayed, and concerned that I had damaged my promising career.
I confided to my wife, “I believe I may have just lost the Vietnam War.” I stayed at home a few days to wait for an “all’s clear.” 

Eventually, speculation about a secret plan in the budget lost steam. When I returned to work, the situation was hectic with new issues, and President Nixon never revealed any special plan, secret or otherwise, to end the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War would continue for six more years. My work changed, largely because of several minutes at the end of that 1969 White House press briefing. My boss, Ray Clark, promoted me to deputy director of the Budget Preparation Staff. I had gone to a White House press briefing by invitation and only to observe, and the tensions around a Southeast Asia budget item had shone a light directly on me.

That test encouraged my confidence. I naturally began to pay more attention to the tumult that
words like "Southeast Asia" and “Vietnam” could generate. 

I could not have foreseen that Vietnam would become more for me, professionally. Yet, in a flash, it would appear, ten years would fly, the War would end. Yet, it would continue to reach U.S. shores through news of desperation among our former allies, victims of unending horrors we never imagined. 

Refugees and their desperate flights for safety and freedom would continue for years after the Vietnam War. I could not envision that, nor did many people. Refugee plight would converge with U.S. failure in, and a desire to forget, Vietnam. My view was too early to see that a rare, carefully assembled team would join other forces to awaken our country, on global levels, to its best humanitarian traditions. It would change U.S. and international policies and practices. It would change a refugee team's personal and professional lives; and it would change American communities and families for generations to come. 

What happened ten years later, as I show, is another truly American story.   

*1. “Joseph Laitin Dies at 87; Advisor to Presidents, Ombudsman at The Post.” Washington Post, January 20, 2002.
*2. White House News Conference Report (#109), “With Ron Ziegler, Press Secretary and James Purcell, Bureau of the Budget, 4:30 P.M., March 26, 1969.”

Copyright (c) 2013, 2014. 
All Rights Reserved.
From the draft of the forthcoming book subtitled America's Reawakened Humanitarian Spirit (1979-1986).

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