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.


A CEO who clings to that kind of information at that level of detail would baffle and worry his board of directors: Does this man not know how to use his time? Has he failed to fill the job of the middle manager who should be the person to know such details? A journalist trained as a lawyer or a Ph.D. sees Clinton's feat as a tour de force because it involves policy. A senior executive trained at Harvard Business School considers the CEO who knows such things eccentric at best and probably neglecting other, larger parts of his job. It is almost as absurd as Jimmy Carter editing the minutes of cabinet meetings or controlling the schedule of the White House tennis court.


Memorizing a list of African health ministers may seem harmless, but there were other examples from the Clinton administration that were not harmless at all.


Bill Clinton began his administration by appointing as secretary of defense congressman Les Aspin, Ph.D. Clinton thus put in charge of the world's largest operational budget a man who had never run anything larger than the House Armed Services Committee staff. Cries of alarm from the media? Of course not.


Surprise! Aspin was in way over his head. Clinton had to bring in the experienced William Perry from the bullpen only a year later, and only after Aspin's handling of the U.S. mission to Somalia had led to the bodies of murdered U.S. servicemen being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.


How might President Bush regard the idea of an appointment like that? Well, I wouldn't want to be the person in a meeting with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney suggesting that a man who had never managed more than a few dozen subordinates should be put in charge of a $ 250 billion operating budget, nearly two million personnel, the highest of high technology systems, and the nation's security. "Wouldn't be prudent" even to suggest such a thing, as a previous president might say.


Last year the New York Times sent a reporter to interview people who had worked for Bush when he was managing partner of the Texas Rangers. The result was an unintentionally funny article by a reporter plainly annoyed that everyone he could find who had worked for Bush there liked him and thought him a good boss. Of course, no media outlet attached any significance to this report of how Bush had done running a large, complex business.


For all of its undeniable merits, training in business management is hardly a guarantee of success in electoral politics and government. There are fundamental ways in which government is not like a business organization. So why does George W. Bush do so well at it? Bush is a rarity among MBAs in that he appreciates two intertwined disciplines that such managers seldom pay heed to.


The first is the language of political discourse. The typical MBA has no clue what tone and substance of public rhetoric might command support from voters. Such a manager can't speak this language and is scarcely aware of its existence because he or she never has to use it or anything like it. This tone-deafness is the reason that business leaders often find themselves backing famous and powerful but hopeless presidential candidates (think Alexander Haig and John B. Connally).


Indeed, George W. Bush may have been unique in the modern era by becoming, while not in national office, the preferred candidate of both the business community and the primary and general electorates. Even Ronald Reagan was not the business community's leading choice for president before he started winning primaries in 1980.


The other discipline is history. Business management demands that one be forward-looking and active to stay ahead in the global marketplace. This leads to a skeptical attitude toward taking time to learn about the past. The curious result is summed up by the reported comment of a Nobel laureate that he receives many letters from businessmen offering their solutions to the world's economic problems, the common trait of which is ignorance of whether the idea has ever been tried.


George W. Bush has somehow overcome that peril of the manager's outlook, too. Not only has he chosen successful managers and leaders from previous Republican administrations, we now know that the entire start of his administration was carried out in the light of a systematic review of what had and hadn't worked for previous new administrations.


Professional Washingtonians' unfamiliarity with the discipline of management is no new thing. About to leave the White House in 1953, Harry Truman is famously reported to have said that Dwight Eisenhower would have a terrible time as president because it wouldn't be at all like the military; that Ike would "say 'Do this, Do that,' and nothing will happen." "Do this, do that" may have described Captain Truman's experiences in the trenches in World War I. But it didn't apprehend the nuanced management skills Ike had acquired as supreme allied commander. Eisenhower's success as president may have surprised Truman, but it was no surprise to those who understand the skills needed to organize balky allies like de Gaulle and Montgomery and to land 700,000 men on a hostile shore to recapture a continent.


It would be going too far to compare George W. Bush to Eisenhower. But, to take the example of the most recent Bush predecessor who came to office amid media ridicule, no one predicted of Ronald Reagan that he would turn out to be, well, Ronald Reagan. Maybe it's the media's intelligence we should be worrying about.




James Higgins, a Harvard MBA, is an adjunct fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.