”Jaw, jaw,” Winston Churchill said, “is better than war, war.” The wartime leader, whose voice saved the West and civilization, would know. That sometimes goes for politics, too.
President Trump appears to be taking his promises seriously, applying “jaw, jaw” to dealing with the big defense contractors, teaching them that his vow to restore America’s military readiness does not include spending without looking closely at price tags.
The chiefs of the military-industrial complex, as Dwight D. Eisenhower called the nexus of the nation’s defense, have to be watched closely. They’re not cheats, necessarily, but like a lot of Americans they regard the federal till as something asking to be tapped. Weapons sometimes seem planned with as much gold plating as the toilet on the president’s private Boeing 757, which, foolishly extravagant as that may be, was paid for out of his own pocket.
Defense contractors are learning to pay attention to the Donald’s tweets, which often have as much bite as bark. “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35 [fighter] I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” (Exclamation point, the Donald’s.)
Many in Washington, who think they know everything about how Washington works, giggled and twittered about his tweet. The new president would learn a thing or two about the military-industrial complex.
But Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed-Martin, did not laugh. “I heard his message loud and clear about reducing the cost of the F-35,” she said a day or two later. “I gave him my personal commitment to drive the cost down aggressively. We’re ready to deliver.”
Earlier Mr. Trump squeezed a promise out of Boeing to cut the costs of building several Boeing 747s for presidential travel, which become Air Force One when the president is aboard. Mr. Trump looked over the costs and specifications of the planes with the eye of a businessman looking over an architect’s ideas for a new hotel, and said the estimates “are out of control.”
The F-35, which will cost the U.S. government $400 billion over the next two decades, is the largest single Pentagon arms commitment now running, and it’s a program all the defense contractors are watching closely. “It’s a little bit of a dance,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “But we’re going to get the costs down. The F-35 is very, very — uh — expensive.
Mr. Trump, whose book, “The Art of the Deal,” is worth reading in Washington. In a presidential debate last year he spoke scathingly of the negotiators the government has assigned make its deals. He described them as “stupid,” and said he knew where to find “really good negotiators” and he would hire them to negotiate for the government.
The new president has been sharply criticized for his lack of ever having held an elective office. Such critics make a fair point. Governors, or candidates who have been governors, have made some of the better presidents. Those with experience only in the Congress, not so much. Senators think money is only for giving away. (Not their own, of course.) Governors, who have had to devise budgets amid the clamor of competing interests, know better. Businessmen, who have their limitations, know best of all that money, like ice cream, quickly melts.
Mr. Trump might look at expenses closer to the White House, and pay closer attention than most presidents have done to what pensioned presidents take home every month. Presidents, even the failures among them, are entitled to a pension that enables them to live comfortably, and with dignity. The presidents before Harry S. Truman got almost nothing.
They get half their salaries for life; Barack Obama will be paid $207,800 for the coming year. He and the other ex-presidents before him — Jimmy Carter, George Bush father and son, and Bill Clinton — received “transition services” to ease the strain and pain of returning to the kind of lives the rest of us live, with allowances for travel, office expenses and health-care insurance. The Republicans, if they repeal and replace Obamacare, will spare Mr. Obama the pain of his signature legacy. (Who says Republicans have no heart?)
Congress tried last year to set presidential pensions at a flat $200,000 a year, and cap other expenses at $200,000 a year per president. Each president would get annual cost of living raises, but tied only to the formula used to increase Social Security benefits. President Obama vetoed it because he said it would terminate salaries and benefits of staffs of ex-presidents.
President Trump is taking heat for choosing so many billionaires for his Cabinet, but billionaires with an eye for the dollar have their uses. They know how to “jaw, jaw,” and understand that a lot of jaws are made of glass.
• Wesley Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Times.
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