Jim Schlesinger’s Mixed Legacy of Accomplishment

Of all of the secretaries of energy since the cabinet-level agency came to life in 1977, James R. Schlesinger is the only one likely to be remembered by historians. Jim Schlesinger, the first energy secretary, died of pneumonia in a Baltimore hospital March 27. He was 85.

I knew Schlesinger slightly, covering him as Jimmy Carter’s energy guru and then energy secretary as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and Energy Daily. I also chatted with him a few times at cocktail parties hosted by my publisher, Llewellyn King, who was a Schlesinger intimate. Schlesinger and I shared a few tales of our joint obsession, bird watching. The disheveled and shambling Schlesinger, shirt unbuttoned and tie askew, liked to puff on his pipe, sip Scotch, and talk about tracking unusual, rare, and difficult avian species, such as the Bermudan Cahow.

I found Schlesinger, a Ph.D. economist with a focus on geopolitics, as brilliant, abrasive, and unwilling to suffer fools (which often included me). Over the years, I also found him to be unwilling to face his own policy blindness, including his belief in the “peak oil” foolishness against all empirical evidence. To his credit, he was willing to grant standing to policy opponents who brought logic and data to their positions, such as advocates for renewable energy. That compared to the scorn he piled on those he thought were shallow and relied on emotion over logic, such as anti-nuclear advocates.

Schlesinger’s intellect and skills as a bureaucratic infighter led to unparalleled peaks and valleys in government. Beginning as a key manager in the Nixon White House’s Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget), he came to the notice of the president, who soon named him to chair the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As AEC chairman, Schlesinger was a tough and skeptical manager, challenging many of the sacred radioactive cows of the atomic establishment. He also greatly irritated the nuclear establishment that then drove the atomic enterprise. That did not hurt his reputation in the combative Nixon White House.

After Nixon’s easy reelection victory in 1972 against the hapless George McGovern, the president fired his CIA chief Richard Helms, who would not impede the investigation into the botched burglary at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington (which eventually brought Nixon down). Nixon appointed Schlesinger to replace Helms and told him to clean house of the Helms loyalists.

Schlesinger’s CIA broom lasted only 17 weeks, although he managed to sweep out some 10 percent of the agency’s workforce, most of them at senior levels.

By that time, the Nixon administration was self-destructing over opposition to the war in Vietnam and the growing specter of Watergate. Nixon moved Elliot Richardson from defense secretary to attorney general (an ill-fated choice) and picked Schlesinger to replace him.

Schlesinger was unpopular with Congress. His patron, Nixon, was driven from office over the Watergate scandal. Schlesinger, remaining in office, clashed repeatedly with President Gerald Ford on policy and stylistic issues. Ford fired him in 1975.

Ford faced a 1976 challenge for the GOP nomination from California’s Ronald Reagan. Schlesinger backed Reagan. When Ford won the nomination, life-long Republican Schlesinger dumped the party and went to work for Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, who won the 1976 election. One of Carter’s campaign pledges – in a political environment shaped by the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974 and the subsequent gasoline price hike – was to create a federal cabinet-level energy agency. Schlesinger, on Carter’s White House staff, was the administration’s point man on the legislation. He was rewarded with the job as the first secretary of energy.

I have long argued that creating the agency was a mistake, and that Schlesinger’s empire-building created a bureaucratic behemoth with no clear mission and diverse and often contradictory authorities. But give Jim Schlesinger his due: he put together and housed on Independence Ave. an edifice unmovable ever since.

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When the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, and gasoline prices spiked again, Schlesinger became the poster boy of Carter administration energy fecklessness. That event, said longtime energy analyst and historian Dan Yergin,  “marked the beginning of the end of the Presidency of Jimmy Carter.” It also marked the end of the remarkable political career of Jim Schlesinger. Carter fired him in 1979.

After his career was over, Schlesinger told historian Walter Isaacson, “I tended to be too self-righteous, a quibbler, stubborn, too. It took me a while to understand how hard I must have been to deal with.”