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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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.