THE CABINET: The Testing of Engine Charlie

  • Share
  • Read Later

Shortly after 1 a.m., in the rear of the presidential box at the McDonough gym inaugural hall, Dwight Eisenhower and Charles Erwin Wilson* talked about the Wilson crisis. Ike seemed vehement, once made a table-pounding motion with his doubled fist. Wilson was having his say too. Later, Eisenhower's aides said the President told Wilson that he wanted him to do whatever was necessary to qualify as Defense Secretary. A few hours later, Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey heard from friends on Capitol Hill exactly what Wilson would have to do: sell his General Motors stock, or he would not be confirmed.

The "conflict of interest" law forbids Government officials from letting contracts to companies in which they have an interest. But Wilson's case was not clear black & white. As Secretary of Defense, he would not actually pass on contracts with General Motors or anyone else. That would be done by underlings. Nevertheless, the Senators felt that, since he certainly could influence the underlings, he must sell. On the other hand, Charles Edward Wilson, who had quit as president of General Electric to become Director of Defense Mobilization, had not been forced to sell his stock. His out: ex officio, he didn't buy anything. He too might have been considered in a position to influence those who did buy. A shadowy line ran somewhere between Electric Charlie's old job and Engine Charlie's new one.

For two days Eisenhower, Humphrey, Wilson and Attorney General Herbert Brownell conferred and considered. Then Wilson slipped into the private side door of the President's executive office and revealed his decision: he would get rid of his stock (giving up to 20% to his family and selling the rest), and pay a capital-gains tax of several hundred thousand dollars.

Misleading Reports. The case had reached a point where Wilson could have done nothing else without seriously embarrassing the Eisenhower Administration. Two factors built up the crisis: 1) the failure of Ike's advisers to foresee the difficulty, and 2) misleading reports of what Wilson told the Senate Armed Services Committee. The sum of the reports that leaked from the committee's executive session was a very bad press for Wilson. Column after column of type left the impression that he was being arrogant, that he didn't understand how there could be a conflict of interests between private business and Government, that he was going to have things his way, or else.

Last week, when the official record of Wilson's testimony was released, it was clear that he had not been as bad as his press. Engine Charlie certainly lacked Dean Acheson's clipped, lawyerlike evasiveness, and he did not talk in the language of the Congressional Record (he called Senators "you men" not "the distinguished Senators"). He was inclined to be chatty, but at least part of that was the result of the Senators' tendency to ask him questions which he had already answered. Unaccustomed to the senatorial habit of saying everything three times, he thought they wanted to hear something he hadn't said before.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3