The Ultimate CEO

Dec. 21, 2004
Wanted -- a business leader for president.

Given what Bill Clinton is going through, it's a wonder that anyone would want to run for President. But many people do. Al Gore -- surprise, surprise! -- formally declared his intention do so over the holidays. He will have lots of competition. Within his own party, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley -- his renown as pro-basketball Hall of Famer may be a better election credential -- is expected to drive for the ultimate basket. And even though Sen. Paul Wellstone (Minn.) has dropped his anticipated bid, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) is an all but certain candidate. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) also might jump into the race, unless he decides that last November's election results make his odds of becoming Speaker better than those of becoming President. On the Republican side, there's a proliferation of candidates, or would-be candidates. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose dad still jumps out of airplanes, is far-and-away the early front-runner -- at least until he has to take positions on issues. Senators John McCain (Ariz.), the darling of the media, and Robert C. Smith (N.H.), well-positioned for the first primary, are both official candidates. Elizabeth Hanford Dole -- twice a Cabinet secretary -- has resigned her job as head of the American Red Cross presumably to launch an effort to make hubby Bob "First Spouse." Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and magazine publisher Steve Forbes are sure to renew their 1996 candidacies; commentator Pat Buchanan and outgoing California Gov. Pete Wilson less so. Conservative activist Gary Bauer and House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (Ohio) are setting up campaigns. And last week Dan Quayle, who hopes voters don't remember him as the vice president who couldn't spell "potato," officially announced. Conspicuously missing from the list is Retired Gen. Colin Powell, a man who many analysts believe could have won the general election in 1996 but would have had trouble getting nominated. He declined to run, and now seems to have been forgotten about. But there's someone else missing: a candidate from Corporate America. Only one such individual ever has been nominated by a major party for the nation's top job. He was Wendell Wilkie, who left his post as president of Commonwealth & Southern Corp., a utility, to become the GOP's standard-bearer against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Few business people even have attempted to get nominated, unless you count a few ambitious publishers such as Horace Greeley, Warren Harding, James Cox, William Randolph Hearst and, now, Forbes. But as far as professional business managers -- CEO types -- are concerned, the list is barren. This should not be. Corporate CEOs have many of the attributes needed to run the country: organizational skills, experience in working with people, talent in sorting through complex problems, discipline in high-pressure decision making, and broad exposure to national issues. And, yes, they tend to be smart. To be sure, they're not politicians. But at a point in U.S. history when the disconnect between Washington and the public seems at an all-time high, that can be an asset. Also, they wouldn't have the dominant authority they have in their corporations; they'd have to share power with 535 members of Congress. But they'd adjust to this. They wouldn't have gotten to where they are in their companies if they hadn't learned to adjust to challenges. One reason CEOs don't run for President, of course, is that they haven't been asked. The public is suspicious of Big Business, and thus, would be suspicious of a Big Business candidate. But a bigger reason is that they're discouraged by conflict-of-interest regulations, disclosure rules, and the prospect of a severe pay cut. They're also reluctant to endure the personal scrutiny and loss of privacy they'd face, even if they have nothing to hide. These same objections prevent CEOs and senior-level executives from accepting high-level appointive jobs in the government or running for Congress. Although an encouraging number of small-business owners now are serving in Congress, only one former CEO of one of the U.S.'s 500 largest companies is doing so. He is Rep. Amo Houghton (R, N.Y.), former chairman and CEO of Corning Inc. To him, the above objections for not serving in Washington "are overblown excuses." Primarily, he says, executives don't serve in government -- at any level -- is because "they don't think it is important enough." What could be more important -- or a bigger management challenge or cap to one's career -- than being President of the United States? It's the ultimate CEO job.

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