STATESMANSHIP AND TIME
Richard Reeves, in his excellent political biography, Nixon: Alone in the White House, noted Nixon’s propensity to withdraw from human contact and squirrel himself away in a nondescript EOB office, writing on yellow legal pads, extensive notes to himself…
“Compassionate, Bold, New, Courageous…Zest for the job (not lonely but awesome). Goals — reorganized govt…Each day a chance to do something memorable for someone. Need to be good to do good…Need for joy, serenity, confidence, inspiration.”
…that would later morph into terse instructions to H.R. Haldeman and Henry Kissinger for new policy proposals for the administration, political themes for Nixon’s campaign or strategic goals for the United States. Nixon constantly pushed Haldeman to schedule more and more time for isolated reflection, setting aside whole afternoons or even weekend retreats at Camp David. Haldeman, it was presumed at the time, was in cahoots with Ehrlichman and Kissinger to isolate the president when in fact, the opposite was usually true with Haldeman trying to cajole his reluctant boss to actually speak to his own cabinet members or members of Congress.
Nixon was an extreme case with his neurotic personality driving his need to separate himself from others but I cannot help but comment that Nixon benefited tremendously from this practice of quiet reflection when it was kept within moderation. Charismatically challenged and widely despised by the press and the Eastern Establishment since the Hiss case, Nixon nevertheless, by keeping a strong focus on strategic thinking and following through into action, managed to dominate the American political agenda until the apogee of Watergate.
Deeply unpopular, Nixon pulled off several successful summits with the Soviets, signed major arms control agreements, engineered the China Opening, concluded peace accords with North Vietnam and was reelected by a margin only matched by one of the most beloved men to hold the Oval Office and ran for national office seriously more times than any man except FDR.
Modern American presidents are overscheduled. Not only presidents but most of the 5 tiers of policy making political appointees are in my view, so overly driven by an institutional policy process run amok with a flurry of meetings, phone calls, memorandum, testimony and email that scant time is left for thinking about where policy should be going. Worse, interagency groups exist less to solve strategic foreign policy problems facing the United States than to defend institutional turf and prerogatives. For an up to date example, The Atlantic Monthly has in their print edition, an excerpt of the very serious charges leveled by ex-CIA al Qaida expert Michael ” Anonymous” Scheuer at senior IC officials in his written Congressional testimony.
A new approach is needed.
First is a reform of the daily schedule of top tier policy-makers so that it no longer resembles an endless treadmill that drives good people out of government service in 18-24 months. A ridiculous average tenure that hardly leaves enough time to become familiar with more than the basics of their bureaucracy much less develop a global perspective. Coordination and exchange of views are important but certainly some of these meetings can be reduced in time and frequency and raised in terms of productivity.
Secondly, a reform of Executive Branch institutional cultures needs to take place in which interagency groups are task oriented problem solvers instead of ambassadors of their various departments sent to negotiate levels of cooperation and pass the buck of responsibility for policy. Both of these reforms can only happen when a President and his highest officials are determined to make them happen by demonstrating leadership by prioritizing systemic follow-through to check backsliding.
Strategy before process. Thought before action. Action not reaction.