It was the good fortune of the Reagan Administration to have been blessed with complicated scandals. Every administration gets mired in scandal sooner or later, but while Nixon had a simple scandal like Watergate, Reagan’s scandals were opaque and Byzantine, filled with confusing details and endlessly permutating subplots. Iran-contra was the prototype. It was hard to explain. It made the eyes glaze over. Instead of producing outrage, it produced indifference. When an administration is in the middle of a scandal, indifference is a gift from heaven.
Iran-contra, you may recall, was preceded by another scandal at which the country yawned: Wedtech. Remember Wedtech? Remember how it had something to do with the South Bronx? With defense contracts? With bribery? Remember how confusing it seemed, like an episode of Falcon Crest, only more ludicrous? And yet, while no one was paying much attention, Attorney General Ed Meese was resigning in disgrace, and former presidential aide Lyn Nofziger was being indicted. (Nofziger was convicted in 1988; the conviction has since been overturned.) Before it was over, two New York congressmen were in trouble, along with a handful of corrupt union of cials, much of the top echelon of the Wedtech Corp., and various and assorted fixers, the most interesting of whom was a pompous dilettante named E. Robert Wallach, who considered himself both Wedtech’s patron saint and Ed Meese’s best friend. It was the commingling of those two roles that did him in, though that’s getting ahead of the story.
Here’s the surprise: The Wedtech saga, at least as it’s laid out here by James Traub, is not so complicated after all. Founded in the mid-1960s by a idealistic high school dropout named John Mariotta (who really did want to bring jobs to the South Bronx), Wedtech became a very minor defense contractor wedded to the government’s minority set-aside program, which was originally intended to help companies like Wedtech.
The intentions were honorable at first, but along the way everything — and I mean everything — got perverted. The people who ran the company began telling small lies to get into the set-aside program, which eventually evolved into preposterous deceptions. The people in government were inclined to promote Wedtech because it seemed such a success story, such an affirmation of Reagan’s values. But this too became horribly perverted as Wedtech’s ”influence,” much of it purchased, caused it to land contracts it had no hope of completing, and to get many other favors it did not deserve. (This is where Wallach and, according to a special prosecutor, Meese came in.)
Wedtech ate through money; at one point near the end, the company issued $75 million in bonds and was virtually broke two weeks later. Its corporate documents were fictions. There was always somebody — a ”consultant,” a politician, a fixer — with his hand out, especially at times of crisis, of which there were many. ”Destiny,” writes Traub, in one of his many lovely lines, ”sometimes seemed to escort Wedtech through the world with a lantern, looking for yet another dishonest man.”
So I take it back: Wedtech was pretty complicated. What I should have said is that Traub has done such a wonderful job of unraveling the Wedtech scandal, of mining it for its humor and pathos and subtlety, that it doesn’t seem complicated by the time you’re finished reading. It seems, instead, understandable, perhaps inevitable, given both the rich and improbable cast of characters and the desperate choices the company was constantly faced with.
The cost, finally, was jail for almost all of them. And yet — and this is another tribute to Traub’s narrative skills — one winds up feeling not so much outraged at their crimes as mildly regretful that so noble an idea ended so badly. There was a crudeness to the Wedtech enterprise — a naiveté about the way the world works — that takes some of the sting out of their crimes. As Traub points out, defense contractors may do their share of bribing, but they do it in the genteel, legal fashion, through PAC contributions and the like. The Wedtech boys never knew there were genteel ways, but they always seem too gullible, too eager, too frenetic, too crass to be evil.
And that’s precisely the point. Too Good to Be True turns out to be a book not about venality but about human frailty. The Wedtech saga, Traub writes in his introduction, ”has to do with deceit, of course, but also with self- delusion, that faculty which permits men to believe what is useful for them to believe.” Traub not only understands this — which is rare enough in a book about scandal — but has managed to convey it with wit, style, and insight. It is his great triumph. A