Speaking Truth to Power Has a Cost

Image property of: NYT / Associated Press

Obituaries appearing in major newspapers are fascinating. You can learn a lot or be reminded of history you have forgotten and there is frequently a backstory about the deceased that you probably would never have known about otherwise.


The New York Times of 2/22/19 ran the obituary of A. Ernest Fitzgerald who recently died at age 92. Mr. Fitzgerald came to public attention for investigating and testifying about cost overruns, fraud and waste in Pentagon spending. He famously testified to Congress that Boeing was charging the Air Force $915.55 for plastic caps for stool legs that had cost Boeing 34 cents.

Image property of: Ron Edmonds / Associated Press / NYT

Mr. Fitzgerald’s work became so embarrassing to those in power that retaliation was inevitable. He lost his Civil Service tenure and was removed from examining the costs of major weapons systems. He was re-assigned to audit Air Force mess halls and bowling alleys in Thailand. In other words, he was banished. He even came to the attention of President Richard Nixon. One of Nixon’s aides, Alexander Butterfield, wrote a memo to Nixon saying Mr. Fitzgerald was disloyal and recommended “We let him bleed for a while at least.” Then his job was eliminated with Nixon’s approval. Mr. Fitzgerald ultimately sued Richard Nixon and White House aides for 3.5 million in damages. Nixon entered into a confidential settlement to pay $144,000 to Mr. Fitzgerald if the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon was financially liable for actions he had taken while in office. In a separate case, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that presidents were entitled to “absolute immunity” from civil damages.

The New York Times quotes Chuck Spinney, a friend of Mr. Fitzgerald. According to Mr. Spinney, Mr. Fitzgerald told him that to explain the complexities of Pentagon spending it was first necessary to point out to the average person how overpricing works with familiar objects like toilet seats, hammers and ash trays. “Then, step 2 is to simply explain how an F-15 or B-1 bomber or M-1 is simply a bundle of overpriced spare parts flying in close formation.”


Mr. Fitzgerald once said in an interview, “We profess to revere truth in the government yet, when someone commits truth, they are in a heap of trouble.” According to the obituary, Mr. Fitzgerald’s wife warned him to tell the truth even if his superiors did not want him to. She told him that she didn’t really think she could live with a man she didn’t respect.


Alexander Butterfield’s statement about Mr. Fitzgerald being “disloyal” sounds just as ominous today as it ever did in the past. I’m not sure if Mr. Fitzgerald intended to say “commits truth”, but this phrase suggests that one should do more than speak the truth. Also, what a powerful incentive it should be to tell the truth because your wife can’t live with someone she can’t respect.

** Watch an interview with Mr. Fitzgerald regarding Pentagon spending

** Tribute to Mr. Fitzgerald