An `Air Breathing Animal' Climbs Out Of The Fish Bowl

Yes, government is messy and inefficient. But anyone who thinks a reform-minded business executive can jet into Washington and make the bureaucracy stand up and salute ought to talk to John A. Rollwagen.

The former chief executive officer of Cray Research Inc. withdrew on May 19 as President Clinton's nominee for Deputy Secretary of Commerce after becoming enmeshed in a Securities & Exchange Commission probe into insider trading. Rollwagen and his many friends insist he did nothing wrong, and the SEC isn't talking. However it ends up, though, Rollwagen's short-lived Washington experience has plenty of lessons for business.

GOOD START. Top business leaders rarely are asked to take operating jobs in government agencies--and those who get the nod rarely sign on. So when Rollwagen was tapped by Clinton for the Commerce position last December, his acceptance was seen as a sign of constructive ties between business and the incoming Clinton administration. Rollwagen, 52, was excited. He quit his job, packed his bags, and moved his wife and two kids from St. Paul, Minn., to Washington.

Rollwagen's appointed task was important: coordinating technology policy across federal agencies. His challenge: to match his technological expertise and business acumen with the political savvy of Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, the consummate Washingtonian. Together, they would help President Clinton laser in on the economy, while addressing the special needs of high-tech industries.

What happened after that is open to interpretation. But the lesson Rollwagen takes from his experience is blunt: He now believes that an executive who has spent his career making decisions and seeing results probably isn't cut out to handle Washington's byzantine political relationships and bureaucratic infighting. "I'm an air-breathing animal that got in the deep end of the pool, and I couldn't create gills fast enough," he says. "I anticipated bureaucracy and slowness. But I really did think it would be more like business than it is."

His awakening was rude. If his first Washington weekend--a Presidential retreat at Camp David--was a high, his first Monday on the job was a letdown. He was shown to his temporary quarters, a work area that could be entered only by walking through someone else's office. Brown, meanwhile, spent the day in meetings at the White House. "I showed up, and they didn't know what to do with me," Rollwagen says.

He quickly developed his own agenda: engineer a closer relationship between government and business; redefine the terms of U.S. trade policies, especially with Japan; and help set the ground rules for creation of the nation's "information infrastructure." He figured he'd rally various interest groups around a common mission and go for it, as he did at Cray.

It didn't happen. "Commerce has 35,000 people and a $3.5 billion budget," he says. "Your board of directors is 435 people [Congress], and Commerce deals with about 50 different committees. It's like having a separate committee for the mailroom, one for the district sales offices, one for the engineering department." Priorities can't be shifted from one function to another--that might offend some subcommittee chairman, Rollwagen says. He realized he would have little control over his agenda, even if he could get it moving.

BRIGHT LIGHTS. Then came the confirmation meat grinder. On May 3, two days before his confirmation hearing, someone leaked the news that Rollwagen was under investigation by the SEC for late-1991 insider trading of stock in the Cray Computer Corp., a Cray Research spinoff. Rollwagen, who a confidant says was shattered by the news, says he has done nothing wrong, but won't go into detail on advice of his lawyers. Colleagues defend him. Edward R. McCracken, chief executive at Silicon Graphics Inc., calls him "one of the most reputable, honest, Midwestern types imaginable."

In the end, with the bright TV lights of congressional hearing rooms looming, Rollwagen decided he'd had enough. So he left. A few days after his withdrawal, he and his family were back in St. Paul. He was out of work, since Cray had already replaced him. He says he still wants to help Clinton as much as he can--but only from the outside. "It's been a huge civics lesson," he says.

An idealistic Mr. Smith done in by Washington's dark maneuvering--or an example of the nomination process performing its function? Or just a businessman who got fed up with Washington? Whatever the case, any business person asked to serve in government will remember his story as a cautionary tale.