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THE ADMINISTRATION: New Clout at Commerce

5 minute read

In his frequent speeches to executives, Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson often quotes his friend Henry Kissinger as cracking: “Peterson, you wouldn’t have any way of knowing this, but power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” The line invariably draws a laugh, but the fact is that Peterson is no stranger to power and enjoys being referred to in Washington as “the economic Kissinger.” As the nation’s foreign-trade spokesman, he is out to prove that “trade policy is foreign policy, trade policy is security policy, trade policy is domestic policy.” After less than a year in the job, he is wielding more clout than any Commerce Secretary since Herbert Hoover. But, says Peterson: “I keep a portrait of Hoover hanging over the fireplace in my office to remind me of the hazards of ambition.”

Peterson has made himself a leader in U.S. diplomacy toward the East, in line with the Nixon Administration principle that relations with Communist nations are best cemented by economic mortar. In talks with Soviet Party Boss Leonid Brezhnev and other officials, the Commerce chief has formed the out lines of a U.S.-Russian arrangement in which U.S. goods and technology would be exchanged for huge amounts of Soviet natural gas and other fuels. Last month he signed an agreement with Poland that will grant U.S. Export-Import Bank credits to the country, and is expected in five years to triple U.S.-Polish trade to about $600 million annually. The Poles also agreed to let U.S. companies buy up to 49% of Polish businesses and share in long-term profits. The pact may lead to U.S. trade agreements with other Eastern European countries.

Peterson has also been a prominent figure in the effort to right the American balance of international payments. As the White House adviser on trade in 1970-71, he created a slide show using jazzy, multicolored charts to hammer home to high officials that the U.S. share of world commerce was slipping. The presentation deeply impressed President Nixon and helped motivate the U.S. world financial offensive that culminated in upward revaluation of foreign currencies and devaluation of the dollar. Peterson is a firm supporter of Treasury Secretary George Shultz’s plan to keep the world’s major trading nations in rough balance with each other automatically by placing international sanctions on countries that run up persistent large foreign-exchange surpluses or deficits. Secretary Peterson is almost certain to play a major role in negotiations next year for world monetary reform.

Holding Fire. Domestically, Peterson has performed the Commerce Secretary’s job as liaison man between business and Government with much more sensitivity to modern trends than his predecessor, Maurice Stans, who later became Nixon’s campaign treasurer. Indeed, the 46-year-old Peterson, who dresses in dark suits augmented by flashy ties, square-toed shoes and gold-rimmed glasses, seems more than just one generation more mod than the 64-year-old Stans. Stans took the business side in almost every dispute; among other things, he decried tough anti-pollution regulations and defended the clubbing of Alaskan seals.

In contrast, Peterson has warned businessmen that they are highly unpopular with many people who view them as, in his words, “fat cats.” Despite strong pressure from the sleepwear industry, he stiffened Government regulations against the use of flammable materials in pajamas and mattresses. Even when he defends an industry under criticism, Peterson finds a noncombative method; after nature lovers attacked the tuna industry for killing porpoises, Peterson flew to Los Angeles to pose for pictures with Flipper at Marineland and announce that the Government was financing research into new kinds of fishing nets that would not sweep up porpoises along with the tuna.

Peterson comes from Kearney, Neb., where his father, an emigrant from Greece, ran a restaurant. A summa cum laude graduate of Northwestern, he became a vice president of the McCann-Erickson ad agency while still in his twenties. One of his accounts was Bell & Howell, the boss of which, Charles Percy, lured him aboard and eventually, after winning a Senate seat, backed Peterson for the Bell & Howell presidency. From that post, Peterson was sponsored for his first Administration job by another old Chicago friend, George Shultz.

With his adman’s knack for selling projects and a ready ear at the White House, Peterson seems destined for an even greater role in the second Nixon Administration. He is helping to draft a new federal program aimed at alleviating the nation’s energy shortage; one idea is to import billions of dollars worth of Soviet oil and gas in exchange for U.S. machines. Nixon may talk about the program in his State of the Union message in January and later submit a special message on the subject to Congress. Referring to the energy program, Peterson recently told oilmen in Chicago that “there is no new presidential initiative coming in 1973 that is more important.” Moreover, if Nixon succeeds in reorganizing the Cabinet to combine parts of several departments—including Commerce, Labor, Agriculture and Transportation—under a single Secretary of Economic Development, Peterson could well land the job.

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