The Magazine

What Bush Learned at Harvard

His background as an MBA is serving him well and confounding the media

Feb 19, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 22 • By JAMES HIGGINS
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ONE COULD BE FORGIVEN for thinking that the journalists covering the opening days of the George W. Bush administration had just walked out of Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays a mentally limited gardener who stumbles from homelessness to a presidential nomination. Phrases like "don't know what to make of him," "charm offensive," and "surprisingly strong start" have dominated coverage of the new chief executive. Mystified journalists do not understand what they are watching.

No one who has paid attention to Bush should be surprised by his skillful start. But the parochial outlook of the Washington media class prevents it from appreciating the things the new president is doing well, or even from realizing what he is doing. That parochial outlook isn't liberalism. The problem is that the media are dominated by people who went to graduate schools of law, journalism, and liberal arts, or who went directly from college to jobs in Washington and never left. This gives journalists a one-dimensional idea of what constitutes intelligence: to be "intelligent" is to be a detail-oriented policy wonk.

Hence Al Gore -- a C student or worse in college who quit and then flunked most of his divinity school courses at Vanderbilt before giving up on graduate study entirely -- is thought to be a formidable brain because he wrote Earth in the Balance and will talk at length about policy minutiae. But Gore wasn't making a bid for tenure last year. He was running for president.

The same media regard George W. Bush with what could politely be termed condescension. Descriptions of Bush dwell on his days as an Andover cheerleader and as a Yale frat boy. Yet Bush's presidency to date bears most strongly the imprint of the part of his education often treated as a sideshow: the MBA he earned at Harvard in 1975.

Harvard Business School (which is my alma mater, too) tries to teach the skills essential to succeeding as a senior manager in a large organization. But the Washington commentariat views these skills as little more than idiosyncrasies -- when it notices them at all.

The president meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus or visits the retreat of the House and Senate Democrats? The surprised media dismiss it as a "charm offensive," sure to come to nothing. But ask a manager who has succeeded at winning an organization's top job, and you will find that reaching out to the defeated faction is a basic, very unsurprising step for a CEO who wants to accomplish his goals.

Harvard Business School tries to train future executives for American industry, not numbers crunchers or policy analysts. Students do spend time learning to tell debits from credits and stocks from bonds. But they spend far more time on learning how actually to get an organization to accomplish what it is supposed to accomplish. That approach encourages the manager to put enormous emphasis on human resource management, starting with finding the right people and placing them in the right jobs. And that is just what Bush has gotten his highest marks to date for, even if a grudging press corps can't quite understand how he earned them.

Showing off one's intellect, either in the pedantic manner of Al Gore or the charming manner of Bill Clinton, is in the worldview of the Harvard MBA not considered very smart. In fact, it's considered pretty dumb because it is so likely to grate on subordinates who were never at the top of their classes but whose cooperation is essential to getting the organization to run well. The strong manager has to communicate to those around him that he is on top of the job without being a showoff. That is not an easy balancing act. The scarcity of people who can do it is a big part of why managers like General Electric CEO Jack Welch become such highly valued superstars in the business world.

David Gergen, in a recent appearance on Nightline, expressed awe that Bill Clinton could, unassisted, recite the names of nearly a dozen health ministers in Africa and the role each played in his administration's policy on AIDS. Gergen, who in his recent memoir placed Clinton on an intellectual par with Churchill, spoke of this memorization as an example of supreme mastery of the job.