Remembering Richard Darman

It was the day of the Saturday Night Massacre, Oct. 20, 1973. President Nixon had just ordered the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Richardson had refused and resigned. In his office at the Justice Department, Richardson picked up the phone and called Cox. Both Richardson and Cox were students of the ancient Greeks, as well as believers in the rule of law, and Richardson read to Cox from Homer:

Richardson, the original honorable schoolboy and a combat hero from World War II, had boundless faith in human nature. Sitting in his office that evening was a young man, his assistant, Richard Darman, who did not. Darman, 30, understood that sometimes man is fallen, and when he left the office that night, he carried documents under his shirt to slip by the FBI agents who had been ordered to lock down and seal the attorney general's office. But Darman, who died Friday of leukemia at age 64 and was my friend, later recalled he learned something of honor and integrity that night, and he never forgot it through a life of service.

Darman often told me how he was moved by John F. Kennedy's call to "bear any burden." A Harvard freshman the year Kennedy was elected, Darman was thrilled to catch a glimpse of JFK gliding through Harvard Yard one autumn afternoon. Darman went to Harvard Business School to study management, not for business, but for government service. During the 1970s, Darman served with Richardson, a proud Brahmin and model of rectitude and duty, at the Defense, State, Justice and Commerce Departments during the Nixon and Ford Administrations. Darman learned how to be the indispensable public servant--who knew how to reconcile politics and principle to get things done. A prodigious worker, Darman had an astonishing ability to synthesize massive and complex data, a keen analytical ability and a puckish sense of humor, which sometimes got him in trouble.

He joined forces with James A. Baker, the greatest of all government operators, who, as President Reagan's chief of staff, stationed Darman outside the Oval Office, where he controlled the paper flow, and with it, much of the federal government. "Reagan's IN box was my outbox, and vice-versa," Darman recalled. He seemed to delight in navigating treacherous political shoals. Peggy Noonan, Reagan's speechwriter, recalls being introduced to Darman when she first came to the White House in the winter of 1984. "I'm sure you've heard all about this White House," he said. "That there is a great deal of infighting, and we're split into separate warring groups, which leak unpleasant things about each other to the amusement of the media, which are not slow in passing it on." Noonan could see in Darman's twinkling eyes that he was enjoying this glibness. She nodded yes, and mumbled something about how it's a shame you have to read that sort of nonsense. "It's all true, of course," he said. When Baker became Treasury secretary in 1985, Darman became deputy Treasury secretary. Against all political odds, it was Darman who negotiated the 1986 Tax Reform Act, a rare stroke of bipartisan reform.

President George H.W. Bush made Darman his budget director, one of those bureaucratic jobs that has not amounted to much in recent years. Under Darman it was a true power base and engine for good government. Darman orchestrated a deal with the Democrats in 1990 to require that any new spending be met with spending cuts or tax increases. The best piece of fiscal legislation in decades, the deal gave the economy a boost that lasted through the 1990s. But the deal turned out to be Darman's undoing. The Republican right accused him of conspiring to undo President Bush's "Read my lips, no new taxes" pledge at the 1988 GOP convention.

Darman became a political pariah; his ability to serve in government was effectively ended.

This saddened him. After 9/11, he longed to go back into government, to bring his great skills to bear, but he was too proud to ask, and the Bush 43 administration--increasingly partisan and polarized--did not reach out to him. But President Bush's father did not forget, and like the Greek warriors of old, he honored Darman. In December, as Darman lay dying, Bush 41 sent this letter to Darman's son, Jonathan (who is a NEWSWEEK senior writer): "I just want you and your family to know that I owe your Dad a lot. He was wonderfully supportive of me through thick and thin--a trusted ally and a very loyal friend. He took a lot of heat on my behalf." Jim Baker wept when he heard that his old friend was dying. "He was a great public servant," said Baker. "He was as good at it as anyone I've ever seen."