About 20 years ago I was walking down a hallway on the west side of the Potomac with Adm. Zumwalt on our way to brief members of the Joint Chiefs. It was a rare occasion and opportunity and as anyone who knows me, knows I can’t keep my mouth from talking geeky science, sometimes too much.
I was in Washington where I was involved (as president) in setting up a new company at the request of a number of very highly placed officials in the energy and nuclear industry. Bud Zumwalt was a business partner and on my board of directors along with a former chief of the US Nuclear regulatory commission and another chief from the largest nuclear fission reactor company. He was one of the first people I had met in my life who upon meeting I suddenly knew what the word charisma meant, Bud had it.
Since the new R&D company was in a entirely unexpected pioneering field of physics it was a challenge to inform people about its field and the opportunity it might represent. For almost all the science we were doing was “impossible” not merely implausible. We were transmuting elements using chemistry, well quantum chemistry but chemistry not conventional nuclear methods.
This work which required a different view of the nucleus of atoms that was heretical to all that is holy in the world of conventional physics, and remains so to this day. It’s amazing how closed and dogmatic the communities of science really are. But this just worked! By heating a small amount of finely powdered metals suddenly radiation appeared along with lots of anomalous heat. The radiation had a short half life which defined exactly what had been transmuted into existence.
Dogma is everything in society and since the days of Galileo little has really changed. Countless scientific discoveries, especially the ones that are discoveries by observation without being tied to conventional theoretical explanations are branded as “bad”, “junk”, “skeptical”, and every other pejorative word in the dictionary and the people associated are demeaned and diminished and branded as “frauds”, “outlaws”, “heretics”, and worse. We live in a world where perception is far more important than reality and perception is ruled by anyone with a willingness or zeal to simply make stuff up especially in support of their religious dogma.
So as I was walking down that hallway to a meeting with a small cabal of men holding infinite power I was told by my friend and business partner the Admiral, “Now Russ,” he said, “I know how much you love to tell this fascinating story of unimaginable science. But take my advice, these guys won’t get much of it. Just show them a little thigh, you know they will want to see a whole lot more.” It was a short meeting and that little bit of thigh was revealed. They did want to see a lot more.
The business continued for a time. There were endless discussions as to the ramifications within the Nuclear Regulatory Act and fortunately one of the founders of my company was a formed very high official in the administration of that act and kept us walking a thin knife edge of being able to remain in operation and not being taken “secret.” Venture capital came aboard and then big time investment bankers and in the blink of an eye a takeover coup of the company was executed and I was ousted.
The company went on for a time then failed, the new big investment bankers from DLJ chief advisor thought I’d shared everything I knew, being the blabber-mouth science geek that I am. They followed the classic Vulture Capital model of quickly proceeding to the stage called “shoot the inventor.” But they were wrong, there were a few key secrets unrevealed to them. There was more attached to that thigh than what they thought droolingly possible. That’s the nature of pioneering science, those who blaze the trail, as easy as they seem to make it all appear, are even themselves rarely fully aware of the significance of all of the nuances of the twists and turns of the trail they have followed and the discoveries along that trail.
Bud was right though, there is most assuredly a lot of power in just a little bit of the right thigh.
Here’s my other Adm. Zumwalt story about what an incredible man he was.
One morning we were meeting over breakfast and Bud said he’d be delayed arriving at our board meeting later that day. ” I’m headed to the Whitehouse to meet with the president. He wants me to sign on as a democrat endorsing his re-election and in exchange he will sign this piece of paper for me.”
The paper was an executive order that was near and dear to Bud’s heart. When he was commander of the Vietnam war as he told it he was told by the military that “Agent Orange” was a defoliant that would knock the leaves off the vegetation where it was sprayed and deny the Viet Cong cover. He was assured it was not dangerous to humans. He was particularly blunt about this, “the bastards lied to me, it had horrible effects on humans exposed to it, they knew it and lied to me.”
He ordered its use, and his own son who was in the field in Vietnam happened to be one of the countless soldiers who was sprayed with Agent Orange while on the battlefield. His son had suffered for years with agonizing cancer that Bud was certain was the result of the Agent Orange he was sprayed with. The military had refused to acknowledge that his son and thousands of others were “Agent Orange” victims.
The paper Bud had in his hand was the executive order that if signed by the president would give soldiers and veterans who suffered Agent Orange effects the VA benefits they had long been denied. Later that day he came back to our office, he had one of his stern but charismatic looks on his face. It was a look of power and sadness.
“OK you are looking at a newly signed up Republican bastard, but I have his god damned signature.” And he passed the document around sharing this poignant and incredibly important moment for so many.
Now that’s charisma.
I do think however that Bud showed President Bush a lot more than a little thigh that day, he bared and gave his soul for his sailors and soldiers.