October 26, 2017

1967. The Rank-Happy Capital of the United States

Protocol and Prestige in Washington
United States Capitol during the 1959-1960 restoration (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

March 28, 1967

During the past fifty years or so that Washington, D.C. has been growing into one of the major capitals of the world, this politically-conscious community has also become the most "rank-happy" town outside of Annapolis or West Point.

We've seen full-fledged eagle colonels emptying ashtrays for one-star generals. And on military aircraft, it's an unhappy sergeant who gets off the ship in front of a lieutenant—thus violating military protocol about deplaning according to rank.

Originally, protocol was a diplomatic word invented to keep ambassadors from physically cutting each other's throats at international peace conferences, embassy receptions, and legation cocktail parties. "Protocol," according to the dictionary, "is the code prescribing deference to rank and strict adherence to due order of precedence and correct procedure in diplomatic exchanges and ceremonies..."

Thus, in many ways Washington is very much like certain ancient Oriental societies, which have been described as a nation lined up single file, the emperor at the head of the line and the lowliest and most miserable peasant at the tail. Everyone in those aged lands had his place in the population line, with someone higher ranking ahead to kowtow to, and with someone of lesser station behind to kick back on.

Thus in Congress, along Embassy Row, in the State Department, Pentagon, and virtually all government agencies, the question of the official pecking order becomes increasingly vital to the ambitious.

The so-called status symbols take on exaggerated significance for the energetic bureaucrat or politician trying to get ahead. The silent and bloody guerrilla warfare which raises among the staffs of senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill comes to light every once in a while in the bitter struggle for working space in the congressional office buildings there. Office suites with corner windows are a symbol of political status and seniority.

Back during the early days of the Eisenhower Administration, the status symbol was rugs. Wall-to-wall carpeting meant that the government official had at least Cabinet influence at the White House. But even a new 10 by 12-foot rug meant a man was a comer. And in those days, the men with the rugs were easy to identify. It seems that the new government carpeting had a tendency to shed; the bureaucrat with tufts of rug on his shoes or trouser cuffs was a man to watch.

When President John Kennedy was organizing his office, the predominant mark of high station in the New Frontier Administration was youth. And you may remember that a lot of desk-bound softies ended up with charley horses trying to convert themselves into amateur fullbacks on the office touch football teams.

Today we have news of yet another mark of rank in the Washington hierarchy. Since he took office, President Johnson has been intent on applying Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's cost effectiveness programs to the federal bureaucracy.

The General Services Administration has been making job studies, consolidating staff duties, combining offices, and even having a look at the government's outdated furniture, most of which seems to have been designed for Roman emperors.

The GSA has been replacing a lot of big space-wasting walnut and mahogany desks with more modern, more efficient metal furniture.

But the orders now have been promulgated. Only civil servants who earn $17,500 a year or more will be allowed to fly one of those big, bi-motored wooden desks, the kind of desk that a man can really get his feet on.

This is Bill Downs for ABC reporting from Washington.