As Secretary of the Treasury, William Simon stood in the forefront of cabinet officers preparing to march onto the floor of the House to hear President Gerald Ford’s inaugural address before a joint session of Congress. Just before the procession started—before TV cameras—Simon peered toward the gentleman on his right. “Hey Henry,” he whispered to Secretary of State Kissinger (facetiously, as it turned out), “your fly is open.”
In such a protocol-conscious town, Simon’s behavior could be considered crude—or simply refreshing. Washington is having difficulty making up its mind about Simon in more serious ways. By some testimony, including his own, he is a cool, brilliant administrator. Others regard him as shallow and overconfident. In his previous job as energy czar, he was forthright and effective. But now, as the nation’s chief financial officer, his real test is ahead. As Simon, 46, foresees things, he will emerge as the Ford administration’s domestic strong man in the war against inflation—playing the role of an in-country Kissinger.
“I’m not overawed by the task,” says Simon matter-of-factly. “The problems are infinitely solvable.” As an important first step, he played a key role in organizing the series of preliminary economic conferences of labor, government and business leaders currently being held in Washington. At the first of these conferences, the treasury secretary sided with the newly appointed head of the Council of Economic Advisors, Alan Greenspan, in opposition to loosening up the money supply, as some of the attending economists had urged. Simon declared: “We must recognize that there have been years of fiscal and monetary abuse which cannot be undone overnight. Thus, fiscal and monetary restraint must be exercised patiently.” Translation: for the time being, at least, the administration should not tinker with interest rates and should forget about wage and price controls. At the grand economic summit to be held Sept. 27 and 28 in the White House, Simon will share center stage with Greenspan as chief defender of Gerald Ford’s policy of restraint.
A calm, step-by-step approach to problems is Simon’s forte and the main reason for his rapid climb to the cabinet after only a year and a half in government. Reared on New Jersey’s Atlantic coast, Simon is the grandson of an industrialist who made a fortune in silk-dyeing and lost it in 1929. With financial help from the Gl bill and his insurance-broker father, Simon entered Lafayette College after World War II where, among other distinctions, he became pledgemaster of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He made extra money at odd jobs, drank enough beer to put 240 pounds on his 5’11” frame and gambled at the fraternity house. “When he won we had lamb chops,” recalls wife Carol, then a Marymount College freshman whom he married in 1950. “When he lost we had hot dogs.” At Delta Kappa Epsilon there was an early display of the celebrated Simon temper. When fraternity pranksters put the house cigarette machine in his bed, he angrily hurled it down the stairs.
Following graduation in 1952 Simon—who by then had a daughter—went to work for Tung-Sol, an electronics firm in New Jersey. Unhappy, he quit within three months. Although the breadwinner was out of work on their anniversary, the Simons nonetheless celebrated at an expensive restaurant. There Simon ran into an old fraternity buddy who suggested he try for a job with Union Securities, a Wall Street brokerage house. Instinctively suited for the kind of quick buy-or-sell decisions required in municipal bond trading, he became a division head within three years. He also shed 75 pounds during that period—”We decided he was obese,” says Carol. Swimming 30 laps a day has maintained his weight at 165 ever since.
After a stint as vice-president of Wall Street’s Weeden & Company, Simon went to the investment firm of Salomon Bros, in 1963 and became a full partner in only nine months. He boosted his salary to six figures, plus a share of the company’s profits. The $3 million he accumulated is now held in trust by Morgan Guaranty.
Simon’s sometimes ham-fisted tactics were not universally admired in the world of high finance. On his way to lunch one day, Simon told a junior broker at Salomon to clean off his desk. When he returned to find it still messy, he knocked everything to the floor with a swipe of his arm and archly observed, “See how easy it is to clean off a desk?”
But Simon also made friends on Wall Street—important ones like John Mitchell and then-treasury secretary George Shultz, who recruited him as deputy secretary in 1972. In that post, and after he was named to head the new Federal Energy Office last December, he established a reputation as a tough, single-minded and plainspoken newcomer who had not had time to master the finer points of bureaucratic obfuscation—or diplomacy. During the Arab oil embargo he stirred a minor international tempest by imprudently describing the Shah of Iran as a “nut” for maintaining high, fixed oil prices. Associates marveled at his ability to spot the salient points of almost any subject—a knack for instant expertise that rankled some old Treasury hands. “A hydrofoil mind,” sniped one colleague. “It skims over things fast at a depth of one inch.” Most important, Secretary Shultz was among those impressed. Last April, as Shultz’s chosen successor, Simon moved to the top spot at Treasury.
Least surprised by Simon’s swift rise is his wife Carol, a sylphlike 41. “He zeros in on things,” she observes. “He’s very logical and he’s honest and open and loyal.” He is also, most certainly, hard working. Each morning he is up at 5:15 in time for a light breakfast—usually coffee and fruit over homework and the Washington Post. By 6:30 he leaves their walled estate in McLean, Va. for the Treasury Building in a chaffeur-driven, 1974 dollar-green Mercury. A half-hour later he is crossing a gold carpet to his private elevator in the Treasury Building.
Once in his large, sunny corner office he doffs his suitcoat (and sometimes his shoes) and digs into the papers on his desk. His personal secretary, Barbara Jensen, fills him in on calls to his office during the night. One recent morning he blew up when an operator failed to deliver an important message to him at home. “Find out who she is,” he snapped, before beginning his daily round of appointments. Simon met with three top aides, spoke for an hour at the White House with Secretary of State Kissinger, testified for three hours before a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee in closed session on the Mideast oil situation, met with the House Foreign Affairs Committee and rejoined Kissinger—this time at the State Department—to greet a delegation from Egypt. Meanwhile, he managed to squeeze in an office lunch—a liverwurst and Swiss cheese sandwich, banana and Coke—and dinner in the same place with deputy treasury secretary Stephen S. Gardner. It consisted of a hamburger and a bottle of Budweiser. At 10:10 p.m. he arrived home with a bundle of papers under his arm. Even after such a day he is liable to make dozens of phone calls in a single night. One member of his staff was recently awakened at midnight by a call from Simon. “What does MOIP mean?” asked Simon, without saying hello. “You mean the Mandatory Oil Import Program,” responded the aide. “Right,” said the secretary, and hung up. The day Simon’s promotion to the cabinet was announced, staffers presented him with a toy telephone.
Weekends, Simon tries to get away with Carol and their three youngest children, Aimee, 13, Julie, 10, and Katie, 7. Bill Jr. is a 23-year-old securities trader, while Peter, 21, Mary, 19, and Leigh, 17, are away at school. Simon’s favorite place to hide on weekends is the family’s 15-room, fieldstone “dream house” in New Jersey.
Wherever he goes, however, Simon cannot escape the nation’s economic troubles. Although Carol admits that the Simons “didn’t have to watch money for five or six years” after her husband struck it rich at Salomon Bros., she has rejoined the ranks of cost-conscious housewives since the big Simon family began living on his $60,000 federal salary. “I shop at Giant, Safeway, A&P, all of them, and canned goods are out of sight,” she complains. “So are soup and coffee. Meat hasn’t been that bad for us because we have a freezer and I buy the cuts we want when they’re at their lowest.” Mrs. Simon also grows her own vegetables on the McLean estate. As for the household electric tab: “Bill’s secretary pays the bills, and when she got the electric bill last month she called me and said, ‘What’s going on up there?’ ”
Faced with double-digit inflation, the average citizen might ask the same question of Washington. Simon is perhaps the administration’s most outspoken advocate of drastic cuts in federal spending as the chief means of fighting inflation—even at the risk of pushing up unemployment significantly. No giddy optimist, he nevertheless believes that the annual rate of inflation will drop to around 8% for the next year or two before getting down to an “acceptable rate.” He goes on to warn that once inflation eases a bit, the American people must “not lose the sense of urgency.”
Three men will have the President’s ear on economic matters in the months ahead; Federal Reserve Board Chairman Arthur Burns, Greenspan and Simon. It is Simon’s hope to become first among the equals. As he sat with Carol watching Ford’s first press conference on an office TV set, Simon smiled broadly when his boss declared his intention to cut the budget by $5.5 billion. The secretary will push for a further cut of $2 billion. On TV a reporter reminded Ford that he had labeled inflation “Public Enemy No. 1,” and Simon smiled again. “Public Enemy No. 2,” the secretary winked, “is reporters.” Actually he has been treated rather kindly by the Washington press corps—with the exception, perhaps, of cartoonist Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, who has cast Simon as “His Exchequership” and portrays the secretary as issuing regal proclamations on the state of the economy from a throne. Autographed copies of two such Doonesbury strips hang in the hallway of the McLean house, and for his birthday in November Carol has been working on a surprise gift: a framed portrait of His Exchequership, in needlepoint.