David Boaz, over at the Cato Institute, has an obituary today of A. Ernest Fitzgerald, the legendary cost analyst at the Pentagon. Here’s the Washington Post‘s obituary. The Post does an excellent job and so I won’t try to replicate it here. I do recommend reading it so that you can get a feel for how heroic he was, risking his job and President Nixon’s personal wrath to blow the whistle on the cost overruns on the Pentagon’s C-5A program.
When I was a summer intern at President Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers in the summer of 1973 (I call it Watergate summer because that’s when the Watergate hearings were happening), I resolved to use some lunches and occasionally, parts of my weekends and evenings to meet with every critic of government that I had admired at a distance. That included, of course, Ernie Fitzgerald. He had made quite a splash at the time.
My friend Harry Watson was in D.C. to visit me for a week or two during my time at the CEA and I called Ernie up to get together for lunch. If memory serves, we went up to Capitol Hill to see him and ate in a cafeteria there. I think he might have been working briefly for Senator William Proxmire, the Democratic Senator from Wisconsin.
We had a great visit with Ernie. He was an awesome story teller. Harry and I came away from that lunch with a beautiful metaphor in our heads that Ernie had laid out in explaining the cost overruns and corruption in the C-5A program. Ernie called it “a flying Rayburn Building.” I gather that the construction of the Rayburn Building was legendary for its cost overruns and corruption.
Here’s my favorite paragraph from a 1985 article in People:
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the infamous White House tapes revealed that it had been Richard Nixon who fired Fitzgerald. “I said, ‘Get rid of that son of a bitch,’ ” Nixon was heard telling his aides. Fitzgerald promptly sued Nixon for violating his constitutional rights and later received $142,000 from the former President in a negotiated agreement. That was a sweet victory and he smiles when recalling it. “I went down to my law firm and said, ‘What do you mean a check? I thought it would be small bills in a brown paper bag.’ ” Then he erupts in a bellow of laughter.