Saturday, October 09, 2004

The morning after, revisited

Ain't it great? We now live in a time when you can go to bed early and still know what happened as you slept. All you have to do is go on line and read what others have posted. If you don't like one point of view you can pick another and have a raft of support either way. Neat, huh?

I think the president was set up by one of the questions that came from the crowd. "Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it." This was a resonable point since Kerry had set a precedent in the first debate.(Kerry, you remember, hit one out of the park during the first debate with his "I made a mistake in how I talk about the war, but the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?" ) The president demurred with a revealing non-answer: "Now, you asked what mistakes. I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them. I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV."

Sure. Short and sweet. Just right for a sound bite. But making mistakes is getting to be more stylish than it once was. Unfortunately, correcting mistakes is more important than covering them up. Ask CBS. Ask the NY Times. Ask Trent Lott.

Josh Marshall has a telling comment about this bit of verbal prestidigitation. This morning's surfing has me looking at all kinds of stuff, but his comment is unique in it's insight.

In the president's world, accountability and punishment aren't for the folks who make the mistakes. They're for the people who recognize the mistakes or, God forbid, admit them. And when the president had a chance to come up with any mistakes he might have made in four years as president the one that instinctively popped into his mind were the times he'd appointed folks who turned out to be from the second category, rather than the first.

This is all of a piece. In the Bush world you never admit mistakes. The only mistakes the president can think of are the times he appointed people who do admitted mistakes --- who put reality above loyalty to the president.

No one likes admitting mistakes. And it's often especially difficult for public officials to do so. But recognizing mistakes --- on the inside, if not for public consumption --- is how you prevent mistakes from metastasizing into disasters. Which all explains a great deal about how we got where we are now in Iraq. Link

I try not to read more into what people say than exactly what they say. But I also listen carefully for what they do not say. Here the president had the door wide open to be the in-your-face bubba that his carefully groomed image suggests. He loves to be with a living crowd of people like he had last night. He was in his element. All he had to do was think for a moment and spit out a few examples of screwups that would have enhanced his credibility more than hurt his politics, but he couldn't think of a thing. Even drunks dismiss all kinds of crazy behavior by saaying "Boy was I drunk! I can't believe I yada-yada-yada..."

This is the picture of someone who doesn't make mistakes. Just ask him. Not the real kind like you and I make. He is, in fact, a professional politician who manages his politics with the precision of a business manager (remember, he has an MBA from Yale). I don't consider this part of his background a liability, by the way. The ability to delegate and follow up is not optional to being a good president. Jimmy Carter is a great person, but as a chief executive one of his shortcomings was a strong tendency to micromanage when he might have been delegating. I sense that John Kerry has some of the same quality. This, added to the deliberative style of the US Senate (that's a nice way to say jawboning to death), also works to Kerry's disadvantage.

I recognize the type thanks to a lot of years in the business world. I have had the good fortune to work closely with three or four people whose management styles cover the spectrum from one end to he other.

To illustrate a point, imagine two types of management professionals. One is able to use the inevitable mistakes that he makes to show to his subordinates how human he is, how easy it is to mess up, and also how smart it is to see a mistake and be proactive about making a correction. The other is someone whose mistakes are evident to everyone but himself. Any attempt on the part of someone else to bring up the possibility of a mistake is met with a kill-the-messenger response.

I have worked with both types of people and recognize them instantly. For the reflective person, pegging the type is as easy as noticing hair color or whether the person says tomato or tamahto. Sorry I feel this way, but the president is cut from the second type of fabric.

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