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One Of Washington's Wise Men

Such were the accomplishments of William P. Rogers, who died this week at the age of 87, that his obituary filled dozens of column inches in the nation's leading newspapers. A pillar of the Republican establishment, Rogers had been a player in so many historic events of the last 50 years that the obit writers had trouble deciding where to focus. Most eventually stressed his years as Richard Nixon's secretary of state, when he was involved in a continuing feud with Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, over control of the nation's foreign policy.

The joke making the rounds of Washington's inner sanctums at the time went this way: "Kissinger believes that the only appropriate job for the secretary of state is explaining America's foreign policy to the at a time." Ultimately, Rogers was forced from his post by his old pal Nixon, despite the fact that their relationship went all the way back to the "Checkers" speech, when Rogers played a key role in saving Nixonƒ­s neck. So much for sentiment in the land of politics.

But, as one of the reporters who covered a later chapter in Rogers' long career, I have a different nomination for his finest hour. I think it came in 1986, when he returned temporarily to government service at President Reagan's request to head the investigation into the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which had blown up shortly after launch, killing six astronauts and "Teacher in Space" Christa MacAuliffe.

I make this selection from a life rich in history not just because Rogers' investigating commission did a great service to the nation by nailing down the cause of the accident, but because of the lessons Rogers left behind for anyone charged with overseeing the actions of a government bureaucracy. Fourteen years after the Challenger disaster, the lessons are still worth remembering.

The loss of the Challenger was such a wrenching experience for the nation that the Reagan Administration quickly realized that the investigation could not be entrusted to NASA, which had managed the construction of the shuttle and controlled the fatal launch. Elements within the space agency would have preferred an in-house, friendly investigation, but Reagan understood that the public and the Congress would not stand for it.

Enter Bill Rogers, a man who knew nothing about space but a great deal about Washington and the pathology of bureaucracies. In fairly short order (this was before the days of "independent counsels" and their patented five-year investigations), Rogers and a team of crack investigators gathered from various federal agencies established that:

  • The solid rocket boosters used to launch Challenger were not safe.
  • Key people in NASA knew this.

  • Some of the engineers who worked on the rockets had warned against the launch the night before it happened because they feared the unexpected cold weather at the Florida launch site would retard the funtioning of a critical o-ring seal.
  • NASA officials overly concerned about public relations and scheduling demands basically overruled the line engineers and launched anyway.

    What most people remember about that investigation was the dog and pony show that commission member Richard Feynman, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, put on shortly after the rubberized o-rings became the principle suspect in the disaster. Feynman dropped a piece of o-ring into an ice-filled glass, then held it up to show how it had lost flexibility. Great TV.

    What I remember as a journalist, however, was the discussion I had with Rogers several months later, after his commission had issued its highly-acclaimed report and closed up shop. What if there had been no Rogers Commission? I wanted to know. He was not one to blow his own horn, but he was unequivocal in his response. "There would have been a cover-up, and we would never have known the truth." He said this in a matter-of-fact way, without rancor.

    He recounted how the first briefings he had received from NASA officials, shortly after he was named to lead the investigation, had been vague, simplistic and misleading. "There was a whitewash already in the making when I got there," Rogers said. "We spoiled their plans." There were also gentle hints from NASA that the investigation would move more smoothly if the commission selected by the President let NASA itself do all the real investigating.

    Rogers had no formal training in rocketry, but years of experience in the cauldron of Washington power had granted him a PhD in human nature. He had been a state prosecutor investigating corruption, U.S. attorney general, secretary of state and one of the "Wise Men" that important politicians call on for advice in crises. That experience had taught him that there is an almost irresistible drive within every bureaucratic mechanism to conceal the misjudgments, stupidities and downright cowardice that produce governmental disasters. This must be assumed by anyone trying to get to the truth, and when probing for the truth, you are probably going to need a shovel more than a smile. Thanks for the lesson, Chairman Rogers.

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