Justice For 'Engine Charlie'

Justice delayed is not always justice denied. sometimes it is justice to the dead and to the historical record, two constituencies that have their claims on the conscience of a good society. Consider the case of Charles E. Wilson, who was an early casualty of the politics of reputation as practiced in Washington, where justice often is scarce and random.

If you are under 50 you may never have heard of him. If you are over 50 what you know about him, if anything, is that he was ""Engine Charlie,'' famous for saying ""What is good for General Motors is good for the country.'' He didn't say that, but the fiction that he did say it served a particular political agenda. And journalism, because of carelessness or complicity with the agenda, treated the fiction as a defining fact of the '50s. Wilson died in 1961 butthe falsehood goes marching on. Or it did until John Steele Gordon lassoed it in the current issue of American Heritage.

When Eisenhower became president in 1953, the Defense Department was in the public sector what General Motors was in the private sector -- much the biggest entity. So there was logic to Eisenhower's decision to pick Wilson, president of GM, for Secretary of Defense. GM then had 50 percent of the automobile market. Defense got almost 60 percent of the federal budget. ""Engine Charlie'' -- the nickname distinguished him from ""Electric Charlie,'' the Charles E. Wilson who was president of General Electric -- seemed like just the man to deliver on the goal of ""a bigger bang for the buck.''

But the nation's intelligentsia was in a bad mood. Its large liberal heart had been broken by the defeat of Adlai Stevenson, beaten by a military hero whose grin, said the intelligentsia, was his philosophy. How tiresome. And the intelligentsia's and liberals' sense of entitlement to the presidency had been violated. So liberal intellectuals adopted toward the Eisenhower administration an attitude of contempt and condescension. That attitude was characteristic of their stance toward the country's commercial class and would come to color the Democratic Party's attitude about mainstream middle-class values. Eisenhower and his cabinet were ""the bland leading the bland,'' with Wilson identified as the archetypal boring businessman. This liberal bigotry was singularly ignorant about Wilson.

He was born in Ohio in 1890. His father, a toolmaker, was a union organizer and socialist. Son Charles also was a socialist when, as an undergraduate at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University), he supported the presidential candidacy of Eugene V. Debs. After graduation, Wilson found his job prospects clouded by his politics. He became a patternmaker and the business agent for that craft's union local in Pittsburgh. Years later, his framed union card adorned his offices at GM and the Pentagon.

Directing GM's labor relations in the 1930s, he facilitated the United Automobile Workers' organization of the work force. When the war came he was GM's president. He toiled for two years without a day off, then suffered a stroke. He used his recuperation period -- just three months -- to acquaint himself with the management theories of people like Peter Drucker, to whom Wilson said:

""To design the structure and develop the constitutional principles for the big business enterprise was the great achievement of the founding fathers of GM, the last generation. To develop citizenship and community is the task of the next generation. We are, so to speak, going to be Jeffersonians to Mr. [Alfred P.] Sloan's Federalists.''

Gordon reports that when Wilson developed plans for a pension system to supplement Social Security for GM workers, Drucker warned him that if the pension funds were invested in the stock market, in a few decades workers would be the owners of American industry. ""Exactly what they should be,'' said Wilson. Writes Gordon, ""If life were fair, liberals would hail Charles E. Wilson as a hero.'' Or if liberals had been fair.

Wilson gave up his $600,000 a year salary for the $22,000 paid cabinet members, paid a staggering capital-gains tax on the GM stock he sold to avoid conflicts of interest, then went to his confirmation hearing, where he was nevertheless asked if he would be able to make decisions that were in the national interest but were adverse to GM's interests. He answered:

""I could. I cannot conceive of one because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country.''

Wilson, writes Gordon, could hardly have imagined what would become of his words, which were uttered behind closed doors, when they were distorted by ""liberals horrified to find themselves out of power after 20 years and largely replaced with businessmen . . . They simply twisted what Wilson had said into "What is good for General Motors is good for the country,' leaked it to the press, and repeated the lie endlessly, making Wilson sound like some latter-day corporate version of Marie Antoinette.''

Gordon tells a cautionary tale about Washington, which is happiest when in indignation overdrive. There was nothing new in 1953 about attempts to build political careers or movements on the rubble of other people's reputations. But Wilson's experience was a new wrinkle. Call it the politics of sensitivity. The purported significance of his supposed statement was that it proved him to be coarse, boorish, generally deficient in the finer feelings and lacking an elementary sense of right and wrong. Never mind that Wilson, who was more reflective than the average Washingtonian, can hardly be said to have lowered the tone of the capital.

The caricaturing of him was an early brush stroke in the painting of the 1950s as a decade of crass materialism and moral obtuseness. This political painting prepared the way for the 1960s, and for the politics of feelings which is still too much with us. Today, in addition to, or sometimes instead of, debating the wisdom of particular policies, we argue about the moral worthiness -- summed up as ""sensitivity'' to this or that -- of the person advocating the policies. Which is why politics seems so dreadfully personal. It is.