Viewpoint -- First-Term Judgment And Second-Term Concerns

Jan. 11, 2005

Nearly four years ago, the third week of March 2001 to be exact, I wrote a Web column urging people not to rush to judgment on the Bush Administration. It's time, as another four-year term for President Bush begins, to look back and to look ahead, to make some judgments and express some concerns.

Four years ago, I noted a new civility that the new administration seemed to be instilling in Washington, D.C. But I also noted that the new administration had not yet been tested on any of its legislative priorities, including tax cuts, or in foreign affairs.

In Washington, civility -- unless you consider omnipotent arrogance a civil virtue -- barely lasted until the 2002 congressional elections. And by the time of the 2004 presidential election, civility had fewer practitioners than Ralph Nader had electoral votes.

The Bush Administration was tested on its legislative priorities. It passed, by its standards, for the most part. But some wonder whether the results, particularly the tax cuts, pass fiscal muster.

The administration was tested and is still being tested in foreign affairs, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. And some continue to wonder if the Administration's commitments pass geo-political muster.

The Bush Administration will be tested again in the weeks and months ahead -- on Iraq, on Afghanistan, on tax reform, on partial privatization of Social Security and on fiscal discipline.

These are important, even critical, issues. They are issues that deserve civil debate. Yet it is not clear that either Republicans or Democrats, in Washington, D.C., or around the rest of the country, will encourage the civil debate they deserve. It is clear, however, that the country will lose if that debate does not take place.

There is another important and critical issue, and it is loyalty. The ability to inspire loyalty is an essential quality of a leader, whether in government or in business. The CEOs who truly transform businesses -- as contrasted with those preside over business transitions -- have the ability to articulate their visions, gather the right resources and win the hearts and minds of employees.

One notable example is James Goodnight, the president and CEO of SAS Institute Inc., a privately held producer of analytical software. Significantly, however, the loyalty Goodnight inspires is not blind loyalty. He is an executive who deliberately leaves his office door open-so that he can hear the bad as well as the good news from employees. That, to me, is critically important.

"Predictable Surprises," a book published in October 2004 by Harvard Business School Press, is not about loyalty. But authors Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins instructively remind readers that President John F. Kennedy once defined courage as the willingness to "speak truth to power." The SAS employees who bring the bad news as well as the good news to Jim Goodnight are speaking truth to power. That may take courage. But it is even more so a powerful form of loyalty.

I would like to believe that the people that President Bush intends to move from the White House to cabinet posts -- among them Alberto Gonzales (to be Attorney General) and Condoleezza Rice (to be Secretary of State) -- will speak the truth to power. But I have some doubts. They are Bush loyalists in the narrow sense, people not particularly known for challenging presidential instincts, policies and practices. I wish I had more confidence that they would speak to the president candidly about both the good and the bad. At the same time, I wish I saw in President Bush a person who inspires the kind of loyalty that encourages the speaking of truth to power.

I write this not as an attack on this particular president or his style. Rather, I write out of a concern now more than three decades in the making. As a close observer of the last seven U.S. presidents -- from Lyndon Johnson through George W. Bush -- I have seen the perceived power of the presidency intimidate any number of people, including dozens of CEOs who are voluble with their views when not in the presidential presence.

I have seen powerful presidential personalities discourage frank discussion. And in what may be the most troubling of all, I have seen both presidents and their staffs become increasingly isolated physically and intellectually from the electorate. All too rarely have there been instances of presidents challenging their advisers and of staffs challenging the presidents.

If loyalty is to be the hallmark of the Bush White House, may it not be narrow or blind. May the presidential advisers see the truth and speak the truth to power. And may the president listen to them, see the truth and act wisely upon it.

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