The canning of Aspin wasn't very graceful

February 20, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Some years ago, I took the family to a county fair in southern Wisconsin. After looking at some blue-ribbon 4-H goats and cows, I was heading for a beer tent when a complete stranger grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously and said something like: "Hi, I'm Les Aspin, and I'm running for Congress."

I didn't know the young man and wouldn't have guessed that he would some day become a national figure. But because I feel sorry for politicians who have to engage in such undignified behavior, I shook his hand just as vigorously and said something like: "That's terrific! I know you'll do great, and I hope you make it."

"Where do you live?" he asked, smiling as if we had been buddies since childhood.

"Chicago," I said.

The smile vanished, and he gawked as if I were a creature that had escaped from one of the barns. Then he dropped my hand like it was a snake and --ed off toward a more likely Wisconsin voter, a guy wearing a farm-implement cap.

I mention this because it's the only contact I've ever had with Aspin and to establish that I have no personal reason to feel any sympathy for his losing his job as our secretary of defense.

If anything, I could gloat because of his failure to have said something like: "Well, even though you can't vote for me, welcome to our state, neighbor, and thank you for spending your money here, which helps our economy."

But I do sympathize with him. Not because he lost his job. That happens to people every day. Companies are eager to "downsize," a slimy word that really means: "Let's fire a few hundred or thousand employees to please Wall Street analysts, which will boost the price of our stock, endear us to the board of directors, make our executive stock options more valuable, and keep our management team intact. Let the heads roll."

Aspin will have no problem finding a lucrative lobbying position or -- if he is truly desperate -- returning to Wisconsin in his youthful trade as an economics professor.

But it's the way it was done.

There are experts in how to dump people. Business publications often write about them. And the one thing they agree on is that you do it cleanly and straight up.

It isn't that the experts or the companies they advise are filled with compassion. But if you don't fire someone the right way, you can be sued or have labor problems.

In Washington, though, they have a different way of doing it.

And the dumping of Aspin was a classic example.

At some point, President Clinton apparently decided that making Aspin his secretary of defense had been a mistake.

Depending on which pundit or TV babbler you listen to, it had to do with Aspin's loose management style, grumbling from the brass in the Pentagon, his rumpled wardrobe, not giving good meeting, the death of GIs in Somalia, or his lack of youthful yuppie style. Whatever the reason, Aspin had to go.

Fine. A president should pick his own people. But why can't a president do it straight up and be honest with us?

President: "Les, I've called you in today to say I'm firing you. You handled some stuff OK -- the gays-in-the-military flap, which I started and you had to tidy up; cutting the Pentagon budget; and covering for my enormous ignorance about the military and foreign affairs. But you have a bland image. I was hoping for a red-hot image. Hey, I got to get re-elected. So you are gone."

Aspin: "Thank you, Mr. President. Can I get a letter for my next job?"

Instead, it was done the White House and Washington way.

Those faceless creatures who you often read about -- aides, sources, intimates -- went around whispering in the ears of the Washington press mob, especially those from the networks and the New York Times and the Washington Post.

"The president isn't happy with Les . . . bad management style . . . problems with the Pentagon . . . a theorist, not a hands-on manager . . . not a decision maker . . . forgets to zip up his fly."

The whispering has been going on for weeks. It makes one believe that they hold a meeting in the Oval Office and the order is issued: "I want to fire Aspin. Get out there and whisper!"

Once the whispering begins, that 2 percent of the American population that gives a hoot -- those who live in Washington -- are nodding knowingly and saying: "Aspin has to go. Doesn't give good meeting."

Soon, it is the talk of Washington, and it seeps into papers around the country: That schnook Aspin has had it.

But is that the way it should be done? Of course not.

All Clinton had to do was hold a news conference and say: "I have decided to fire Les Aspin. He wasn't a bad secretary of defense, but I want someone who will help enhance my image and increase the likelihood of my re-election."

Then Aspin could hold his news conference and say: "I have been canned, although I know 1,000 times more about the military than the prez does. Hey, I'll get by. No tag days for old Les. But this is the last time I'll vote for a guy from Arkansas."

Even the American public does a better job of firing.

We vote, then wait for the exit polls to tell us what we were thinking.

In that regard, we're kind of presidential.

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