Rich Williamson has a problem. With the election for U.S. Senate just days away, many people still don’t know him very well. The majority of those who think they do know him don’t like him too much. And if people knew him better, it probably wouldn’t help his chances.

Much to Williamson’s chagrin, Democrat Carol Moseley Braun has dominated this year’s Senate campaign as symbol and celebrity. She has incarnated the insurgent victorious in a year when incumbents are distrusted. She provided the initial catalyst for “the year of the woman,” which sees an unprecedented number of women running for–and apparently winning–seats in the nearly all-male Senate club. And she has demonstrated a maturation of black politics, managing to transcend race even as she breaks new racial ground.

Too often Braun’s campaign has been content to play it safe, to let those symbols and her celebrity substitute for substance and in some cases hide her less-than-sterling grasp of national issues. Her campaign has often been in disarray, and she has been plagued by questions about her political and personal integrity.

But she has advocated an approach to government that in its broad outlines is consistent with, if a bit more liberal than, Bill Clinton’s. She emphasizes the importance of public investment in infrastructure–roads, transit, high-speed rail, and foundations for new technologies–and in education and job training to revitalize the economy.

Long associated with defending the interests of the poor in the state legislature, she now talks more about spurring economic growth and jobs as both “the best family policy” and the way to get people off welfare. She would go beyond Clinton in cutting the military to provide money for reinvestment. She would also more boldly reform the health care system to cut costs and provide universal coverage by replacing the patchwork of private insurance with a “single-payer” national insurance plan.

In the state legislature, Braun was consistently among the most liberal legislators, voting much like fellow lakefront Democrats Woody Bowman, Ellis Levin, and Barbara Currie. Like most candidates shifting to a broader constituency, she has rushed to the middle in the Senate campaign to reassure swing and conservative voters.

She defines herself as a “post-Rooseveltian liberal,” meaning she wants the government to support and steer the private economy rather than substitute for private business. In the Senate she would probably vote much like Illinois’ other senator, Paul Simon.

The contest between Braun and Republican candidate Richard S. Williamson is, he has repeatedly asserted, “the clearest philosophical choice in the nation.” That may be true, although the California contest between liberal Barbara Boxer and right-wing radio commentator Bruce Herschensohn is another contender for the title. Williamson has desperately tried to portray Braun as a radical, a dangerous “left-wing liberal.” The attack hasn’t worked well: even in the collar counties, traditionally a Republican stronghold, polls show Braun ahead.

But what about the other side of the choice? Who is Rich Williamson? What philosophy does he represent?

Williamson is the quintessential Reagan-era man. He has ridden the conservative political and economic waves of the past two decades to positions of influence and personal wealth. While acting mainly as a high-level bureaucrat, adviser, and functionary in the service of other people’s ideas–not as a figure of real power or policy innovation–he has participated in many aspects of the conservative-led transformation of American society, including the rise of the right in the Republican party, federal deregulation, cuts in federal aid to states and cities, the leveraged buyout craze, and the “revolving door” through which government officials become lobbyists for domestic and foreign corporations. Williamson profited handsomely from these changes, but it is increasingly evident that most Americans did not.

When Ross Perot rails against the top one percent of Americans gaining nearly all the increase in income over the past decade, “public servants” exploiting their connections for private gain, the “economic treason” of ex-government officials working for foreign companies, and the destruction of the economy in the 80s by paper entrepreneurs who wiped out jobs and produced nothing, he’s talking about people like Rich Williamson.

The conservative movement is now losing momentum, coherence, and direction, and Williamson’s campaign reflects that floundering. While holding true to much of the right’s agenda, Williamson is also running away from his past. Many conservatives who know him argue that if he were elected Williamson could ideologically resemble Richard Lugar of Indiana or Alan Simpson of Wyoming. He would be to the right of Robert Dole of Kansas, most say, and to the left of Jesse Helms of North Carolina, despite close ties Williamson and his advisers have to Helms. Williamson says his model is Jack Kemp, now secretary of housing and urban development. In any case he would be the most conservative senator Illinois has had in more than 50 years.

Williamson’s outlook on life was strongly influenced by his years growing up in Winnetka in the 50s and early 60s as the son of a nonideological but conservative small factory owner. As a religion major at Princeton even in the heyday of campus protest, Williamson talked little about politics or the Vietnam war, one of his closest friends recalls. He was a football player; his main political activity was running for class president in 1971.

Williamson served two brief stints as an intern with North Shore Republican representative Phil Crane, the most conservative member of the Illinois congressional delegation. He attended law school at the University of Virginia, then was recruited by Ed Feulner, now head of the conservative Heritage Foundation, to return to work for Crane as an administrative assistant, which he did from 1974 to 1976.

At that time Crane was chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU), formed in 1964 to carry on the principles of defeated conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Crane and the ACU were engaged in a major campaign against ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty, which provided for eventual Panamanian control of the canal; their opposition to the treaty put them at odds with many of their fellow conservatives, including National Review editor William F. Buckley.

Williamson was Phil Crane’s “righthand person,” says Joseph A. Morris, a Chicago lawyer who served in the Reagan administration with Williamson (and who would likely have been the Republican candidate this year if Williamson had not taken on the widely shunned task, which at the time was presumed to be a suicide mission against incumbent Alan Dixon).

Williamson’s role at the ACU has taken on new significance in the campaign. Early on Williamson touted his connections with the organization (and was often described as its former chairman or executive director in press accounts). He was “trying to present his conservative credentials,” in the words of Robert Billings, who is now executive director of the ACU. “Later on he decided he didn’t want those conservative credentials.”

Billings says that ACU files contain little indication that Williamson did much beyond some legal consulting for the organization; but two former ACU board members from the time insist that Williamson was, for practical purposes, director of the conservative group. “When Phil Crane was chairman, Williamson had the management portfolio, whether de facto or not,” recalls Jameson Campaigne, an Illinois publisher and longtime leader in the ACU. (His view is seconded by former board member Daniel Joy.) “As de facto executive director he had a hand in a lot of what the ACU did on the treaty.” Indeed, it was through the treaty work that Williamson linked up with conservative Nevada senator Paul Laxalt, a close friend of Reagan who became Williamson’s patron for future jobs in the Reagan campaign and the White House. The ACU’s current chairman, David Keene, says, “When a congressman is chair [of the ACU], he ends up running things through his staff. Rich was really the middleman. He wasn’t executive director. He was more Phil Crane’s alter ego. In terms of policy, everything would go through him to Phil.”

The ACU’s policies under Crane and Williamson were controversial even among conservatives. Conservative journalist Alan Crawford, in his book Thunder on the Right, wrote that Crane supporters diverted the group “from serious matters of public policy” toward an “obsession with symbolic issues.” Crawford quotes an angry ACU board member denouncing Crane for steering the group into “the silly anti-New Deal politics that possesses these unreconstructed McKinleyites.” (The term refers to turn-of-the-century president William McKinley.) Williamson was active in political infighting on behalf of Crane’s views. “He got into fights with a lot of people, including me, on the direction the organization should take,” Campaigne says. “He was a pretty capable fellow, but he didn’t level with me”–especially, Campaigne says, in promising that he wouldn’t encourage Crane to run for president. But such politics helped Williamson gain credibility with the flamboyant social activists of the New Right, who were important in the Reagan campaign.

In 1977 Williamson went to work for the law firm of Winston & Strawn, but he continued to work with Crane, especially promoting Crane’s run at the Republican presidential nomination for 1980. The Crane campaign was “a disaster” that piled up a tremendous debt, Campaigne says; Williamson clashed with Crane and Crane’s wife over the conduct of the campaign, and with New Right backers who wanted Crane to stress social issues more. Crane’s backers said he was fired; Williamson said he quit. He then joined Reagan’s campaign.

According to his friends and conservative colleagues, Williamson is bright, well read, hardworking, and, as Campaigne says, “very ambitious.” He was attracted to the “idea wing” of the new conservative movement but maintained ties with the money men and nuts-and-bolts organizers as well. He was widely seen as a typical lawyer (“talking to him was like talking to a committee,” one colleague says, “you never knew where he stood”) and behind-the-scenes operative, not as a political leader. But a wide range of conservatives, including the New Right social activists with their hot-button issues of abortion, guns, and race, saw him as “one of us.”

In his Senate campaign Williamson has tacked to the left, identifying himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative” and, most significantly, announcing his support of a woman’s right to choose abortion after having previously signed right-winger Phyllis Schlafly’s pledge to oppose abortion under any circumstances. The switch outraged New Rightists like Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, head of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, who sent Williamson a funeral wreath after the announcement to mark the death of his political career.

Williamson now indicates that his abortion position is just an expression of the libertarian conservative preference for keeping government out of people’s private lives (although he attacks Braun for advocating the decriminalization of marijuana, which many libertarian conservatives like Buckley favor). Although many of his former colleagues do not recall talking with him about abortion, Joe Morris says Williamson used to express strong prolife views. “He’s never discussed what occurred to cause him to change his thinking,” Morris says.

Although he still supports Williamson, the ACU’s Billings is disturbed by his abortion switch. “You can’t work with a flip-flopper. It’s easier to deal with income tax evasion, cheating on your wife, or dodging the draft than abandoning principles. It gave the appearance from our point of view that Rich was trying to play both sides of certain issues, because he wanted to be a typical politician and win elections. I thought Rich Williamson was a good conservative, “one of us.’ Maybe people like Paul Weyrich and Phyllis Schlafly knew from the beginning he wasn’t a conservative in the heart. We thought he was. He was administrative assistant for Phil Crane. How much more do you have to say about whether he was conservative?”

In his book Reagan’s Federalism, Williamson identifies himself as part of the ideological right wing of the Reagan movement, claiming he was one of the “true “Reaganauts”‘–along with presidential counselor and later attorney general Edwin Meese and domestic adviser Martin Anderson–against such “pragmatists” as chief of staff James Baker and Office of Management and Budget director David Stockman. The Reaganauts “tended to have deep philosophical roots that brought us into politics in the first place and longtime personal relationships with Ronald Reagan,” Williamson wrote.

Although he now portrays his departure from the White House as a response to overly long hours of work, other reports cite Baker’s displeasure with Williamson and Williamson’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering for coveted positions, such as White House political director, as the reasons behind his exit.

In the White House Williamson had two main jobs. First, as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs, he oversaw the development of Reagan’s “new federalism,” the strategy of shifting as much domestic governmental responsibility as possible from the federal level back to the states. Second, he was associate director of the Task Force on Regulatory Relief, headed by then vice-president George Bush.

Ultimately there was little support in the states or Congress for much of Reagan’s new federalism (such as federal assumption of all Medicaid expenses in exchange for state responsibilities for food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children). But the new federalism did reduce federal regulation and gave states more discretion in spending funds. Some of the new flexibility made programs more rational and effective. In other cases, federal pressure on states to perform was reduced–at times with harmful results–in areas such as worker safety and energy conservation.

Even many liberal reformers favored giving states and cities more flexibility by loosening the constraints of specific federal “categorical” grants. But they believed federal aid was needed for several reasons even if local governments had greater freedom and responsibility. Federal funding can redress local inequalities in tax resources. Federal taxes are slightly fairer and more progressive than most state and local taxes. Federal funding can persist during recessions, when states are forced to balance budgets and thus must increase taxes or cut services at the worst possible time; such countercyclical federal spending not only maintains needed programs but reduces the severity of business downturns. Finally, states are often constrained from undertaking needed programs by businesses that threaten to move if taxes are raised; such threats are less effective against the federal government.

Williamson seems sincerely to have believed in the philosophy of shifting responsibilities to the states, but in the antitax climate of the 80s the predictable effect of new federalism was not a shifting of responsibilities so much as a disavowal of them. The most significant accomplishment of the new federalism was to drastically cut all government spending and regulation for social ends not dictated by private business motives.

Williamson wrote proudly several years later that federal grants to states and local governments were cut 38 percent in fiscal year 1982, when he was in charge, and that in 1985 federal aid to state and local governments dropped for the seventh straight year as a percentage of their expenditures. “It fell to state and local governments to raise taxes, to cut services, or to do both in order that revenues would match expenditures,” he testified before Congress.

States did both, with disastrous consequences. Over the Reagan-Bush years, from fiscal years 1982 to 1991, the federal government cut spending on domestic programs by $231 billion, according to an analysis prepared for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. That includes a cut of $33 billion in infrastructure (roads, bridges, sewers, and the like) and $80 billion in employment and training. For Illinois it meant a loss of more than $2 billion in job training, $580 million in Medicaid, $330 million in education, and $1.2 billion in infrastructure and physical capital spending. All told, Illinois lost around $8 billion over the Reagan-Bush years, much of it rationalized as part of the new federalism.

Although the decline in federal aid to states and cities started under Carter, it accelerated rapidly under Reagan. In 1977 the federal government spent 2.8 percent of the gross domestic product on state and local government aid; by 1977 that was down to 1.8 percent.

At first some states and cities tried to replace the federal cuts, but many faced tax revolts, in part because their taxes already took a disproportionate bite from lower- and middle-income families. Even those states that did enact tax increases could not keep up, especially after the recession hit in the late 80s. Many services were cut. Nationwide, state spending for prisons went up 78 percent as a share of gross domestic product over fiscal years 1981 to 1989, but welfare was cut 14 percent. Soaring medical costs meant that spending for education, transportation, and recreation was drastically cut.

The current recession has been prolonged in part because so many programs that previously would have been funded by Washington, and thus would have helped to counter the business cycle, have been shifted to the states. By raising taxes, cutting services, and laying off workers in the midst of a recession, government has worsened the downturn; it could have been a stabilizing force if federal funding had remained intact.

Only a few states took their increased tax revenues mainly from the rich; most states made little change in progressivity, and eight states made their tax systems even more regressive. In Illinois state and local taxes have continued upward even as services have been cut. From 1985 to 1991, “Illinois added 19 percent to the tax burden on the poor and 15 percent to the taxes of middle-income families, while essentially leaving the rich alone,” according to a study by Citizens for Tax Justice, a Washington-based tax reform group. Illinois now has the fourth highest level of taxes on the poor.

Overall the policies of the Reagan-Bush administrations and changes in the private sector have exacerbated income inequality throughout the country. That has been especially true in Illinois, which is one of 19 states where the rich got richer and both the middle class and the poor got poorer from 1979 to the late 1980s, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Over that period in Illinois the incomes of the poorest fifth of families went down 16 percent (nearly $2,000 per family); the incomes of the middle fifth went down 2 percent (about $1,000); the incomes of the richest fifth went up 9 percent (about $8,500 per family). Illinois now ranks among the states with the greatest inequality of income.

This is the legacy for Illinois of the “new federalism” that Williamson counts as his greatest accomplishment. In his campaign, he has attacked Braun for her votes on 11 tax increases without mentioning that those were tax increases proposed by Republican governors in response to the federal cutbacks he helped engineer.

Confronted with this criticism in an interview, Williamson blustered, “Is she running against Jim Edgar? No. She’s running against Rich Williamson. I have differences with Jim Edgar. . . . The tough decisions were to cut spending rather than raise taxes, and I think those were the better decisions. That’s what I favor.” For example, cutting aid to schools? “I’m running for U.S. Senate,” Williamson replied, as unwilling to give specific advice on where cuts could be made as he was willing to give advice in general. The Williamson agenda, then, is not so much federalism, or shifting responsibilities to the states, as it is simply slashing government spending, even on the most essential, productive public services. The failure to maintain necessary public investment has already become a serious drain on the productivity growth of the private sector in this country, as research by former Chicago Federal Reserve Board economist David Aschauer demonstrates.

Williamson, who thinks the tax system now is “certainly fair,” even though the very rich have reaped the lion’s share of tax cuts over the Reagan-Bush years, says, “I don’t have faith government can provide the answers.” When I asked if there was anything government could do well, there was a long pause, then he mentioned Head Start and medical research as useful government actions, before talking about tax cuts and incentives for business. Now, as under the new federalism, Williamson’s agenda seems less to make government work better or be more accountable than to simply make it disappear.

Williamson’s other major responsibility in the White House was serving as associate director of the Task Force on Regulatory Relief, the forerunner of Dan Quayle’s controversial Council on Competitiveness. Shortly after taking office Reagan set up the task force to coordinate efforts to eliminate “excessive” government regulation and subjected all regulations from federal agencies to review by the Office of Management and Budget. OMB was supposed to evaluate whether the costs of any rule (especially to business) outweighed the benefits (especially to individuals or society as a whole). Although they may seem scientific, such cost-benefit analyses are open to manipulation and subjective interpretation–for example, they require one to decide how much a human life is worth. Even if such calculations were accurate, there is no reason why they should be the last word.

In disputes between OMB and federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency or Food and Drug Administration, the Task Force on Regulatory Relief acted as the final appeals court. But the task force (like OMB itself) was open to backdoor lobbying by business to block regulations.

Public Citizen, a national public interest group, has been trying to obtain the papers of the task force for years to determine how decisions were made. Unable thus far to do so, the group has nonetheless compiled a partial list of blocked regulations that is suggestive in its own right. For example, though there was clear scientific evidence that giving aspirin to children with chicken pox or flu was linked to development of the often fatal or brain-damaging Reye’s syndrome, the Aspirin Foundation and other industry representatives intervened with OMB and the task force to delay for five years a rule requiring aspirin makers to print warnings on their labels; according to an estimate published recently in the British medical journal The Lancet, that delay caused the needless deaths of as many as 1,470 children.

OMB and the task force also blocked requirements for patient information inserts in prescription drug packages; delayed for more than five years tampon absorbency disclosure rules (to help women avoid death from toxic shock syndrome); delayed bans on several food and cosmetic dyes found to be carcinogenic by the FDA; and forced withdrawal of regulations requiring employers to inform workers of hazards of chemicals with which they worked. After holding secret meetings with industry representatives, OMB delayed rules that would lessen the possibility of grain-dust explosions and fires. It also refused to allow the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health even to study possible health risks from video display terminals.

The task force, working with auto manufacturers, tried to eliminate or delay 34 safety and environmental regulations, including requirements that automakers provide airbags and bumpers that survive low-speed impact. It blocked tougher fuel efficiency standards and delayed rules reducing lead in gasoline.

The list goes on. In many cases, the work of the task force and OMB was overturned by the courts or Congress or reversed under public pressure years later; in some cases their actions prevail today.

Williamson admits he “was involved in and supported the effort” and believes in the cost-benefit analysis used, but he denies being “involved day to day” or very deeply. While accepting the basic idea and calling for further deregulation in his campaign, he tries to avoid responsibility for specific actions.

But Murray Weidenbaum, who was then chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors and the economist-guru of deregulation, also served on the Task Force on Regulatory Relief. He says Williamson “was an active person in terms of doing background work on issues, doing research.” Williamson also took part in hearing the appeals made by regulatory agencies when OMB decided to overrule one of their regulations. These appeals were “the most important meetings,” Weidenbaum says. “Sometimes we decided for OMB, sometimes for the agency. [Williamson] was an active member of the task force. I recall working with him on regulatory relief, reform actions that benefit state and local government especially.” It seems clear, unless documents released eventually show that Williamson was an internal dissenter (which even he does not claim), that he shares responsibility for the often capricious and dangerous decisions of the task force.

By 1983 Williamson was out of the White House–whether pushed by Baker and others or not–and took up a position as United States ambassador to the United Nations offices in Vienna. Williamson was commended for his work there, but he also drew rebukes in 1984 for endorsing Senator Jesse Helms for reelection.

Helms, perhaps the most notorious practitioner of the New Right politics of racial resentment, gay bashing, and all-around repressiveness, was also a right-wing critic of even Reagan’s foreign policy and frequently delayed State Department appointments in the Foreign Relations Committee.

“I think Rich shared a lot of Jesse Helms’s criticism of American foreign policy, its conduct and costs,” says his friend Joseph Morris. “I think in Rich’s view Helms was right 80 or 90 percent of the time, more than the State Department bureaucracy, and his own views as assistant secretary [of state, a post Williamson assumed in 1988] were closer to Helms than to the State Department bureaucracy.” For example, Morris says, Williamson shared Helms’s desire for a more aggressive policy in Nicaragua than the Reagan administration’s support of the contra war against the Sandinistas.

Secretary of State George Shultz, the American Foreign Service Association, and the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy all criticized Williamson and a handful of other diplomats who publicly backed Helms, calling the endorsement of any candidate for office a violation of diplomatic protocol.

Although Williamson had shown an interest in international affairs at least since law school, the Vienna UN appointment did not necessarily reflect enthusiasm for that organization. “There was a time when Rich was of the view that the United Nations organizations–the General Assembly and the whole constellation–were not only of no use but counterproductive to the cause of freedom worldwide, the way the UN provided a certain amount of cover to tyrants, large and petty,” Joseph Morris recalls. “He had not only that kind of skepticism but also cost-benefit skepticism.” During the time he served, the U.S. was steadily cutting back its payments to the UN and withdrawing from some of its activities, thus jeopardizing the organization.

In 1985 Williamson left the foreign service to become senior vice president for corporate and internal relations at Beatrice Companies, Inc. Neil Gazel, a former Beatrice official and author of a corporate history, Beatrice: From Buildup Through Breakup, says Williamson was “just a liaison with Washington, a political person” who also helped with Beatrice’s plans to open operations in China.

At this time Beatrice, the Chicago-based food conglomerate, was in turmoil, wracked by internal conflicts over corporate strategy and the wasteful indulgences of chairman James Dutt. In 1984 Dutt had led the takeover of Esmark, Inc., for $2.7 billion. The difficulties of swallowing Esmark and paying for the heavy debt incurred kept the company in chaos. Beatrice began selling off units and cutting staff in order to repay its excessive debt, eliminating about 20,000 jobs in the first year.

In 1986 it was Beatrice’s turn to be fed to the sharks. Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Company (KKR), the leveraged buyout/junk bond giant, made a bid for Beatrice. Beatrice directors and top management offered modest resistance to push up the purchase price to what was then a record $6.2 billion takeover.

But that was not the only record: top corporate officials shared in roughly $30 million in severance payments–“golden parachutes”–that were many times higher than those typical of previous takeovers. Some stockholders sued, charging that the sweetened severance arrangement had induced the officers to sell out to KKR for too little too fast.

After only 18 months on the job, Richard Williamson received $1.1 million as his golden parachute. (In 1986 he also received a salary of $321,000 from Beatrice for a few months’ work, plus $250,000 from Mayer, Brown & Platt for the remainder of the year.) In the years since then Beatrice has been broken up and sold off piecemeal, with many of its plants closed and jobs eliminated. Among the employees represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers, a small portion of Beatrice’s work force, about 2,000 jobs have been lost, including the shutdown of two factories in Illinois. “It was all for one motive,” corporate historian Gazel says: “the buck. To heck with the employees.”

Williamson has suggested that he fought the takeover, but there’s no evidence in the record of much resistance by anyone at Beatrice. Did he do anything wrong? Certainly his reaping such a windfall was not illegal. But it is unseemly, and characteristic of the worst of the Reagan era, that he was so enriched for doing nothing except trading on his government experience while veteran factory workers and lower managers who made the company go were jettisoned. At the very least company officials could have fought for “tin parachutes” for their employees who were about to be released.

Williamson could now address the problems raised by such takeovers and the tax breaks that encouraged them, even though they have slowed down for the moment. But he shows no awareness of, let alone anger at, the way paper entrepreneurism and management misdeeds have destroyed jobs in this country. Where Braun (like Clinton) wants capital-gains tax cuts targeted to reward those who invest in new businesses and over the long term, Williamson proposes across-the-board capital-gains cuts, which would reward speculators along with patient investors.

After Beatrice, Williamson landed in the “government practice group” at Mayer, Brown & Platt, the big Chicago law firm. “There’s not a hell of a lot of difference between ‘government practice’ and lobbying or influence peddling,” says one Chicago lawyer, and he is borne out by the law firm’s own published description of the group: “Virtually every issue before Congress today is lobbied by sophisticated public policy advocates like Mayer, Brown & Platt,” the brochure declares. It also offers to influence regulatory officials.

“When somebody like Williamson is hired by a large firm and comes in as a partner, and his background has been in government rather than the practice of law, it’s fair to assume he’s being hired because of the expectation that he can open some doors,” observes a former partner of Williamson at Mayer, Brown & Platt.

But Williamson wasn’t long at the law firm before he bounced back to the State Department, where he served as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. The Cold War was thawing as Reagan and Gorbachev began talking arms reduction. In congressional hearings Williamson still identified himself as a conservative who distrusted the State Department, and he continued to criticize the UN in line with Reagan administration policy. But he also implemented a shift in U.S. policy by acknowledging this country’s financial obligations to the UN. “Rich was a breath of fresh air in an administration that tended to downplay UN involvement,” says Steven Dimoff, executive director of the Washington office of the United Nations Association. Compared with his predecessors, Williamson was a “moderating influence.”

Although Williamson had supported legislation that contributed to cutting U.S. payments to the UN to half of what we owed, under his brief tenure as assistant secretary the U.S. began to pay more of its share and repay its debts. Still, as Dimoff observes, “We didn’t rejoin UNESCO during those years. We still don’t belong ten years after we withdrew. We still haven’t returned to contributing to the UN Population Fund. There wasn’t wholesale change in U.S. policy.” Williamson says he now sees more promise and less mischief at the United Nations and favors increased multilateral peacekeeping action.

Also during his tenure as assistant secretary of state, Williamson was the official government spokesman who insisted that the USS Vincennes was in international waters when in July 1988 the ship shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 civilians. But Williamson’s statement was “untrue,” Ted Koppel reported on Nightline last summer. Not only was the shooting of the plane not in self-defense, but the U.S. ship was in Iranian waters. Furthermore, the actions were taken as part of the U.S. policy to “tilt” in favor of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. This was the beginning of a policy of aid to Saddam Hussein that built up his power at a time when his violations of human rights were widely known.

Williamson told Nightline that he got his information on the location of the Vincennes from the joint chiefs of staff, the Defense Department, and the National Security Council. Perhaps Williamson was simply a pawn for those who were covering up the truth. But his participation at high levels in the State Department during this time raises questions about the value of the experience he claims, especially since he has not criticized Reagan-Bush foreign policy in any way that suggests he may have learned something from these disasters.

Williamson left the State Department in 1989, returned to Mayer, Brown & Platt, and registered as a foreign agent so he could represent non-U.S. businesses, despite widespread controversy over recently retired government officials doing so. In the first debate of the Senate campaign Williamson portrayed his work for Nestle, one of his foreign corporate clients, as preserving jobs at an Illinois factory, but the Tribune reported that he worked to modify an accounting rule that had previously “helped ensure that foreign companies with U.S. subsidiaries would pay taxes.” He also lobbied hard–but unsuccessfully–with Jack Kemp’s Department of Housing and Urban Development for a bailout for the Presidential Towers housing development, the Sun-Times reported.

On January 1, 1991, Williamson was appointed by the Bush administration as chairman of the board of directors of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, the central bank for member savings and loans, credit unions, banks, and insurance companies involved in housing finance. He served until February of this year, when he resigned to campaign for the Senate.

The savings and loan debacle was one of the great catastrophes of Reagan-era financial deregulation, one that has never received the political attention it deserves because the dirty fingerprints of so many Democrats and Republicans alike are all over the scandal. Members of both parties backed deregulation initially, and both contributed to the delay in addressing the problem. But because Reagan-Bush Republicans, with their distaste for any sort of regulation, controlled the administration, they bear special responsibility for the failure to oversee and control the developing crisis, which is now expected to cost taxpayers about $500 million.

Much of the investigation of the crisis has been focused on California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona, where there were plenty of scandals. But Illinois has the dubious distinction of having amassed the third greatest bailout cost after Texas and California, the fourth largest number of institutions taken over by the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), and the second greatest number of savings and loans that became insolvent during the 1980s, according to Tim Anderson, a banking consultant who has delved into local S&L failures.

Illinois is unusual in another way. Three current or former Republican congressmen served as directors of S&Ls when they became insolvent–Henry Hyde, now running for reelection; Edward Madigan, now secretary of agriculture; and Edward Derwinski, who recently quit his Cabinet post as secretary of veterans affairs.

Despite Illinois’ prominence in the thrift debacle, there has been no special Justice Department task force set up to discover if there was any wrongdoing here, as there has in several other places. There have been only two prosecutions of individuals in Illinois and five suits filed against officers and directors. In at least 12 cases the statute of limitations for lawsuits has passed without action.

Anderson, an active Republican, is convinced that there is a “conspiracy of silence” to avoid investigations and legal action, in large part because of the deep involvement of prominent Republicans in the scandal. Director and officer lawsuits might recover some money for the taxpayers from S&L officials who failed to exercise fiduciary responsibility. Criminal prosecutions could punish wrongdoers; the Government Accounting Office has estimated that at least 30 percent of the thrifts taken over by the RTC were victims of “gross criminal negligence.”

As chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank, Williamson could have called for a full task force investigation and legal action where necessary. But he didn’t. Meanwhile, his law firm, Mayer, Brown & Platt, has been the number two Chicago-area firm in making money from the savings and loan bailout, billing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation $1,213,991 in 1990.

“Williamson did nothing wrong,” Anderson said. “It’s what he didn’t do right. As a lawyer he could say, “I’m incensed that two Cabinet members and my good friend Henry Hyde were involved in failed S&Ls. I’m going to be tough on S&L criminals.’ But that’s not his speech. In Catholicism there are sins of omission and commission. Acts of omission continually compound to be acts of commission.”

By 1992 the conservative movement was losing steam and fragmenting. The old unifying crusade against communism had vanished with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The growing influence of the religious and social right wing, with the imminent threat to abortion rights, frightened many traditional Republican conservatives and libertarians. The deficit-financed Reagan boom had sputtered to an end. A vast residue of debt–personal, corporate, and public–was turning sour and depressing the economy with little to show for it except an oversized military, empty shopping malls in the southwest, and empty factories throughout the country.

Williamson has tried to cover up these fault lines with a clumsy and mean-spirited campaign that has offended as many Republicans, even conservatives, as independents and Democrats. Even the Chicago Tribune has found it impossible to endorse him. One of his campaign strategists has been an old comrade, Arthur Finkelstein, who worked for Jesse Helms in the 1990 campaign that beat black Democrat Harvey Gantt by directly appealing to racial resentment. According to Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal, Helms has given advice to Williamson on his campaign, and Williamson has approvingly cited Helms in appeals to disgruntled Illinois right-wingers.

Finkelstein has worked for many other far-right candidates, including Tom Corcoran, the 1984 Illinois Republican primary challenger to Senator Charles Percy. In 1978, according to several political operatives, while working in South Carolina for congressional candidate Carroll Campbell against Democrat Max Heller, the Austrian-born mayor of Greenville, Finkelstein produced a poll showing that South Carolina voters would reject “a foreign-born Jew who did not believe in Jesus Christ as his savior.” Instead of releasing this poll through the Campbell campaign, Finkelstein is said to have passed it to an independent candidate, who then made it public. Campbell won the election and is now governor of South Carolina. In addition to running other right-wing attack campaigns on his own, Finkelstein worked in 1981 for the notorious NCPAC (National Conservative Political Action Committee), which pioneered the new levels of nastiness in political television ads. A firm controlled by Finkelstein did media buying for the famous Willie Horton ads run by the National Security PAC in 1988 on behalf of George Bush.

If in campaign style and tactics Williamson remains linked to the far right wing of his party, in his speeches and in the debates he has tried to cling to the coattails of Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, and Mayor Daley, while barely mentioning either Bush or Reagan.

But on economic policy he remains an unreconstructed Reaganite. His program for recovery consists largely of further deregulation and cuts in capital gains and other taxes that primarily benefit the wealthy. He favors modest defense cuts along the lines Bush has advocated and shows no interest in increasing public investment in infrastructure, education, job training, or other means of raising productivity and national competitiveness. (The one exception is his support for a new highway in western Illinois, a patently political ploy at odds with his overall approach.)

Williamson also has no plan to reduce the deficit, which his tax cuts would increase, except to pass a balanced budget amendment and give the president a line-item veto. When I asked where he would cut the budget, he proposed eliminating such items as $970,000 spent for dredging a harbor in Louisville or $120 million for a national helium reserve.

But where would the big cuts come from? Instead of answering, Williamson shifted to an attack on the 1990 budget agreement in which Bush agreed to raise taxes. “It prolonged the recession,” he said. “It was the only time we tried to raise taxes in the middle of a recession. It was bad politics.” He then immediately argued, “I support moving toward a balanced budget, including during a recession.” Of course balancing a budget in the middle of a recession–whether by raising taxes or cutting spending–has the same effect he had just denounced, that is, prolonging the recession.

The only big cut Williamson could suggest was the “peace dividend.” Not only would his be much smaller than Braun advocates, but unlike Braun he thinks “the bulk of it should go for deficit reduction.” Braun wants it to go into programs for converting the military economy and providing stimulus to investment and job creation. Although Williamson attacks Braun for promoting policies that would throw defense workers out of jobs, his plan would be far worse for both defense workers and the economy as a whole, depressing government demand at a time when the economy needs a boost.

On health care Williamson advocates a voucher plan, similar to Bush’s proposal, to cover the 37 million Americans now without health insurance. But a recent bipartisan study sponsored by Families USA concluded that Bush’s plan would leave 27 million people still uncovered in the year 2000. Both Clinton’s plan and the one favored by Braun would cover everyone. The study also estimates that while Bush’s plan would save $157 billion by 2000, Clinton’s would save $746 billion. Although the study did not examine the single-payer system Braun advocates, which has the most sponsors of any plan now before Congress, other analyses project that it would save from $900 billion to $1 trillion over the same period. The General Accounting Office has also concluded that such a plan could immediately extend coverage to everyone with no increase in cost because of the tremendous gains in efficiency that would be achieved by eliminating private health insurers and budgeting more effectively.

Williamson, echoing the Bush-Quayle view, attacks malpractice lawyers as the cause of soaring health costs, but the Congressional Budget Office recently reported that malpractice insurance and defensive medicine contribute little to national health care costs.

The two candidates have clashed over school choice. Williamson wants vouchers to permit parents to use public funds to pay for private schools. The amount offered, however, would be insufficient to enable most poor families to make a choice, and the plan would encounter Constitutional problems about separation of church and state. Braun, who favors more decentralized control of schools on the model of Chicago’s reform, argues that the choice plan would undermine public schools, which should be a public trust and responsibility, not another commodity in the marketplace. Williamson wants increased privatization of all government functions, including prisons.

On some issues the differences are muted. Williamson unabashedly champions the free trade agreement with Mexico; Braun expresses a few reservations while supporting it, yet ultimately does not seem to have reconciled the labor and environmental objections with her professed belief in free trade. Braun supports tax incentives for business but unlike Williamson hopes to target them more narrowly to new investment in productive activity. Both Braun and Williamson call themselves prochoice on abortion, but Williamson does not endorse the Freedom of Choice Act that would protect the Roe v. Wade decision in a statute.

There is a clear choice. Williamson remains ideologically a partisan of the Republican right, a foe of virtually anything the government does outside the military. He helped to shape the Reagan revolution and profited immensely from it personally; his policies would extend and intensify what Reagan did. Braun wants a revitalized, reformed government that takes a more active role to nurture the private sector.

Those basic differences persist, even as Williamson trips over himself with contradictions, adjusting a mask of moderation over his conservative core, and as Braun stumbles and appears confused on some issues, attempting from the other side to command the middle ground.

Williamson’s friend Joe Morris thinks that four ideas really animate Williamson: a continued strong international role for the U.S., federalism, “a strong general preference for private property and market solutions,” and school choice.

Is Rich Williamson a moderate who now repudiates the record of the Reagan-Bush years and thus offers a middle-road alternative to Braun, whom he describes as a “far out left-wing liberal”? Let’s let Morris have the final word: “My sense is Rich Williamson is an old-line Goldwater conservative who has positioned himself to be compatible with both libertarians and neoconservatives. . . . Rich Williamson is absolutely committed to conservatism. He is no moderate, and I say that as a compliment.”

Research assistance: Jennifer Mathiowetz

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, Bill Stamets.