A Different Kind of Consultant
Since April’s editorial focus is consulting, I thought I’d share some unique personal experiences.
I tell people that I’ve been unemployed since 1968, which is just another way to describe a consultant. Many of the people who live and work around Washington call themselves “representatives” and “lobbyists,” but all 125,000 of them are lawyers except for the four of us who are engineers. So, most Washington consultants are different from proper folks solely because they went to law school to learn how to deal with politicians and bureaucrats.
• I once had an officemate (we’ll call him Dave) who was also an engineer. His flagship client was a Navy shipbuilder. One morning he got a call with a request to meet Mr. Smith at Lafayette Park across from the White House. The plan: Smith would make his presence known and provide some information while Dave sat on the park bench, and I would observe. The problem: a fellow sat down at the other end of the bench with his brown bag to have lunch. Soon a man, obviously Smith, sat next to the fellow with the brown bag. While whispering in low tones, he tried to put an envelope in the man’s lunch bag. The guy was annoyed, but Smith wouldn’t let him go. Dave and I went back to the office, where Smith called and asked why we hadn’t shown up at the park to receive the request for bid to build a now famous ship.
Dave said we’d meet in 10 minutes and that his client, ABC, appreciated the invitation. Smith then said that a meeting wasn’t necessary because he thought Dave was a consultant for XYZ. So, the Glomar Explorer ship project got off to a shaky start due to ineptitude by a CIA guy.
• My premier client during the second half of the Cold War was the old-line engineering company Mason & Hanger-Silas Mason Co. Inc. During the last century it operated numerous Army ammunition plants and after WWII the very low-key Pantex Plant, the sole maker of nuclear warheads for America. I had written a book about what the new Environmental Protection Agency intended, which got somebody’s attention at that company.
Two years passed before I was asked to meet Horatio Mason. It had taken the firm that long to check me and arrange all the required clearances. What the company and the nation really needed was somebody to keep the nutcases on Capitol Hill happy and without access to information they could misuse. So, I can honestly tell people that I’ve met and discussed many interesting issues with snakes and idiots.
• I had completed my client’s application for an export license to sell some electronic devices to the Japanese military. When the application was denied, we visited an Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) to describe how anyone could visit a Radio Shack in Hong Kong and purchase all the needed parts for assembly in a hotel room and satisfy the contract. He was supplied with a parts list and phone numbers to confirm this. The ASD’s eyes narrowed to slits as he hissed, “We’ll just have to go to Hong Kong and shut down Radio Shack.” True story, and you still pay for his retirement.
• It was necessary to inform Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi of new technologies, and I did that with a slide presentation in a reception for anyone in that country to come and “make their case.” But my slide projector broke. A fellow ran out to his camel and proudly offered his original 1923 Kodak projector with one leg remaining. Unfortunately, my 35-mm slides only lasted 11 seconds in that intense light before burning. The audience in the tent thought this was quite a novel presentation and applauded handsomely at my “one time” showing.
A young man, his first day home from Sandhurst and new Commander of the Tank Command, came to laugh and commiserate. Today, he is the leader of his nation. We had a bond then. He asked what we could do to help make his little brother, who suffered from leukemia, enjoy a last and happy childhood experience. We agreed that a private fishing trip at my place in Virginia would be a perfect answer until God intervened two weeks later.
• During the 1972 energy crisis, I had an assignment as a consultant to answer the public’s questions about supplies and outlooks. Being a young man, I mostly got night and weekend shifts at the office on 17th Street in the Winder Building. The site has been revamped, but in the 1970s it was still the building that served as the War Department during the Civil War.
At 3:00 on a Sunday morning it seemed natural to wander around the building since nothing else was happening. During the war, prisoners were interrogated in the building’s basement, so there were shackles on the walls to hold them. True story: I heard those chains rattle when I visited that basement.
• Sunrise at Arlington Cemetery and midnight at the Jefferson Memorial are two cherished memories. Washington has become too congested now and filled more with consultants than is healthy for our nation, in my view, while the number of lawyers keeps growing. However, there is no more inspiring or beautiful spot than looking east at sunrise from Arlington Cemetery. Equally, the serenity and reflections that exist in solitude at the Jefferson Memorial offer unique visions into life. Being a consultant here has been a unique experience. Consultants everywhere should be as fortunate as I have been. IH