“One thing we’ve learned. We have by far the highest IQ of any cabinet ever assembled.” Thus Donald Trump lauded the brilliance of his government nominees at a lunch on the eve of his inauguration. The usual Trumpian hyperbole, but with perhaps a tiny grain of truth. Rich people, all other things being equal, tend to be on the bright side.
Then again, one is reminded of John Kennedy’s quip at a dinner of western hemisphere Nobel Prize winners at the White House in 1962, hailing them as the biggest collection of talent assembled in that building “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone”.
Even if Trump’s collection falls short on the IQ front compared to that renaissance man Jefferson, one thing is indisputable: they are the wealthiest bunch ever assembled around a presidential cabinet table, with a total of $11bn or more in net wealth, the boss included. But let America be warned.
Trump’s focus on the very rich is but the latest manifestation of an undying American belief that there’s nothing like a big name businessman to put the country to rights. Be successful in one field of life and you can be successful anywhere. “I want people that made a fortune, because now they're negotiating with you,” Trump has said. “It’s no different than a great baseball player or a great golfer.” Well, up to a point.
Some former businessmen have proved to be government stars. In earlier, more straightforward times, large chunks of cabinets, and particularly Secretaries of the Treasury, used to be drawn from Wall Street and its law firms. Robert Rubin under Bill Clinton, and Henry Paulson under George W Bush – both top executives of Goldman Sachs – were competent Treasury Secretaries by any yardstick. So might be Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s nominee for the post and another Sachs alumnus.
Much surprise greeted the nomination of Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, as Secretary of State. What on earth does he know about diplomacy, they asked, and his debut at the Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing was not entirely reassuring. But think back to George Shultz, plucked from the board of Bechtel, the giant engineering group, to be Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State. There’s scarcely been a better one.
The Pentagon however offers some less cheerful precedents. Yes there was “Engine” Charlie Wilson, the General Motors CEO named to head the defense department by Dwight Eisenhower, who may or may not have coined the immortal phrase, “What’s good for GM is good for America”, and who actually cut the defence budget after the Korean War. But memories of Donald Rumsfeld – another touted CEO when put in charge of the Pentagon by George W Bush, only to sanction torture and then botch the post-invasion operation in Iraq – are not so fond. And of course there was Robert McNamara, the archetype of the businessman appointee gone wrong.
McNamara, one of the “best and the brightest” summoned to Washington by JFK, was president of Ford Motors. His executive skills were supposed to be a perfect fit for the Pentagon. What America got (admittedly not entirely of McNamara’s making) was the Vietnam war, which he pursued even though, long before the end of his tenure, he realised it was a pointless and unwinnable mistake.
This time there are no McNamaras. But there is Betsy DeVos, the billionairess, businesswoman and philanthropist whom Trump named as his Education Secretary, who at her confirmation hearings appeared ignorant of various basic policy issues, but said guns at schools could be justified in states like Wyoming, to ward off grizzly bear attacks. Odds are that Trump will secure passage for all his nominees, but the only real doubt is DeVos.
But her misadventures reflect the age-old theory that if only you could run the government, even a government department, like a corporation then all would be well. Deficits would disappear, waste would stop, everything would work perfectly and shareholders – in this case, the 320 million citizens of the United States – would see their stock portfolio rise.
Alas, the theory overlooks a couple of points. First, these particular shareholders are an unruly bunch and around half of them want you to fail. Second, running a company is very different from running a government, even a part of government. Corporate bosses are accustomed to having everything their own way. Give an order, and it will be carried out. As long as you keep profits rising and shareholders happy, there’s nothing to worry about.
Government doesn’t work that way. It has a molasses-thick bureaucracy that can blunt and delay implementation of the most firmly-delivered instruction. To prosper, compromise and knowing when to give ground are essential; the president or cabinet officer who acts like an almighty CEO will sooner or later be cut down to size.
But whenever the going gets rough for the country the old yearnings for the business executive, preferably swashbuckling and headline-making, resurface.
Back in the late 1980s, Chrysler’s charismatic boss Lee Iacocca was the flavour of the month. In the 1990s, it was Ross Perot, “Lil ol’ Ross” of the jug ears and grating voice who summed up the case for businessmen in one memorable exchange from his 1992 debates with Bill Clinton and George HW Bush: “Well, they’ve got a point. I don’t have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. I don’t have any experience in gridlocked government where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else… But I do have a lot of experience in getting things done.” Sound familiar?
Now America’s finally got its man, Donald John Trump. Let’s hope he doesn’t turn out like another businessman-turned-president. His name was Herbert Hoover.
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