Frederick B. Dent, Commerce Secretary Under Nixon, Dies at 97


In 1969, he was appointed to a Nixon administration commission, headed by Thomas S. Gates Jr., a former defense secretary in the Eisenhower administration, that concluded that the national interest would not be adversely affected by ending the military draft and replacing it with all-volunteer armed forces. As the war in Vietnam wound down, conscription was officially ended in 1973.

Nixon’s nomination of Mr. Dent to succeed Peter G. Peterson as his third secretary of commerce struck some critics as a favor to Senator Thurmond and the textile industry, since Mr. Dent had led a fight to limit imports of foreign textiles. But his one-industry protectionist move was apparently no more than a textile man’s survival response to the threat of cheap, foreign-made textiles.

Once in office, he proved to be a spirited advocate of free trade, while accepting the need to protect sensitive sectors of the economy. Presiding over a department with 35,000 employees and a $1 billion budget (about $6 billion today), he traveled abroad often, generally seeking to break down tariff barriers and negotiate a freer flow of goods and services among the United States and its trading partners.

Mr. Dent’s tenure coincided with an Arab oil embargo and rising inflation, and he responded to oil shortages and spiking gas prices by establishing a National Industrial Energy Conservation Council. It set energy consumption targets in many industries and encouraged voluntary conservation by truck companies and drivers of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

With major economic decisions governed by the president and Congress, Mr. Dent’s low-key persona as commerce secretary was seen as suitable for an official with only moderate powers, who did not expect or acquire political influence or the limelight.

When Ford became president, Mr. Dent was among his cabinet holdovers, and in March 1975 he was named special trade representative. (Ford named Rogers C.B. Morton, a former interior secretary, Republican national chairman and Maryland congressman, to succeed him.) For nearly two years Mr. Dent traveled widely, negotiating reciprocal tariff reductions, bilateral trade agreements in many countries and multilateral agreements at conferences in Geneva.

Frederick Baily Dent was born in Cape May, N.J., on Aug. 17, 1922, to Magruder and Edith (Baily) Dent. He grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., an Episcopal boarding school where John V. Lindsay, the future congressman and mayor of New York City, was a fellow member of the class of 1940. (Mr. Dent and Jeb Magruder were not related.)

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