This weekend finds me in D.C. cheering my Reagan White House boss, Fred Fielding, on receiving the National Republican Lawyers Association’s Ed Meese Award for upholding the rule of law in the face of political adversity. No one could be more deserving.
I met Fred, who had recently been named Reagan’s counsel, when he interviewed me on March 11, 1981. March 23 was my first Monday on the job. The next Monday, the president was shot, and I saw my new boss perform under pressure.
It was an extraordinary lesson for a youngster two weeks from working at an Indianapolis law firm, who now found himself—on instructions of a calm superior—digging into potential transfer of presidential authority under the 25th Amendment.
One colleague later cracked us up, saying, “Rusthoven found the answer: Next in line is the vice president!” The jokester is now chief justice, proving even a wise—well, let’s say “wise-acre”—can succeed.
No one laughed that day, of course; but no one Fred supervised panicked. Not true of everyone. Fred was in the Situation Room when Secretary of State Alexander Haig popped on screen, announcing he was now “in charge.” Meanwhile, another senior staffer criticized Fred’s preparing paperwork for 25th Amendment contingencies.
Fred’s critic opined that this threatened public confidence. Fred—knowing the real threat lay in unpreparedness for presidential disability if it arose—took the second-guessing in stride and just did his job.
We also saw Fred handle unfounded personal attacks, a common political hazard. When ethics charges (later disproved) swirled about a cabinet official, a confirmation committee senator said he’d known nothing about it, claiming Fred didn’t share FBI information. Fred quietly showed otherwise to those whose opinions counted. These had no doubts, given Fred’s ethics, which witness had (speaking charitably) suffered “memory” failure.
Fred joined the Reagan team well-prepared, having cut his political teeth as deputy to Nixon counsel John Dean. There are reasons others in that White House—Dean, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, the president himself—came to grief. There are also reasons—having everything to do with character, integrity and judgment—that Fred Fielding did not.
Insights from Fred’s front-row seat at the Watergate tragedy were invaluable to those he mentored in a far different presidency. It also gave us a running joke, based on Haldeman’s accusing Fred of being “Deep Throat,” as melo-dramatized by the Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein.
Fred endured decades of unearned prominence in the cottage industry of Deep Throat speculation. I never believed it—it ran counter to what Fred believes and lives about lawyers and senior White House staffers not violating confidences—but I confess to disappointment when Deep Throat was identified, ending perennial teasing enjoyed by Fielding friends.
Fred also sacrificed private pursuits to assist the much-truncated Bush-Cheney transition. Despite time constraints, he smoothly guided the background investigations, ethics compliance and other demands of getting a new cabinet in place.
He then served on the 9/11 Commission. Such posts tempt some to political grandstanding born of 20-20 hindsight. Not Fred.
At times, the worst thing about politics is actually getting to know the players. It can also be one of the best. Knowing Fred Fielding falls in the second category—a great blessing for me, and a greater one for the country. Nice job, boss.•
Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.