Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Private affairs and public offices, revisited

Follow-up to this post, in which I stated (among other things) the following:

[T]he truth is that a candidate's contributions to the private sector bear no relation to the candidate's ability to govern in the public sector.

I also said:

Now one can argue that someone who has headed his or her own company - someone, for example, like Ross Perot - has acquired the executive experience to become the President of the United States. Unfortunately, private sector executive experience is also irrelevant.

It may not be obvious when you listen to presidential candidate platitudes and sound bites, but a President of the United States can't really do much of anything. Unlike corporate boards of directors, who are often subservient to the head of a company, the U.S. Congress doesn't let the President do anything he or she wants to do.

In that post, I looked at the private industry careers of most of the presidents from Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter. You'll recall that Obama was a community organizer and university lecturer, Bush 43 was the owner of a sports team, Clinton was a lawyer, Reagan was a union head, and Carter was a peanut farmer.

Regarding the specific issue of control, Bush 43 could do whatever he wanted to do with the Texas Rangers, subject to the limits of Major League Baseball. And Carter could do whatever he wanted to with his peanuts. If Bush wanted to order his manager to bench a shortshop, he didn't have to worry about the baseball team's legislature preventing him from doing so.

But perhaps I should have gone farther back. If I had done so, I would have run across one president who had some private sector experience that paralleled his subsequent service as President of the United States.

Ironically, this particular president didn't have a lot of private sector experience. As a young man he worked as a night supervisor at the Belle Springs Creamery, but then he went to college and became a government bureaucrat. Starting at the lowest levels of the bureaucracy, he continuously advanced to higher positions, eventually becoming a senior manager of a bunch of bureaucrats. He spent over thirty years in the bureaucratic ranks, then left for a private sector job. He took a leave of absence from that private sector job to work for the government again...and then became President of the United States.

The President was Dwight Eisenhower. The "bureaucracy" that he joined was the U.S. Army. His one private sector position (outside of Belle Springs Creamery) was as president of Columbia University. During his leave of absence from Columbia, he was Supreme Commander of NATO.

When you're looking at politicians who spent very little time in the private sector, Eisenhower is obviously at the top of the list. And it's interesting to note that his one private sector job happened to have the title of "President."

When I wrote my earlier post about sports team owners and peanut farmers, I failed to recognize that the president of a university is almost as powerless as the president of a country. In some cases, a university president ends up tangling with the faculty. In other cases, the university president tangles with a popular sports coach. (See Penn State.)

So how should one evaluate Eisenhower's tenure at Columbia University? And does it offer any insights about the way that he governed the country?

Let's start by looking at what Columbia University itself said. In a series that documents the exploits of 250 "Columbians," here's part of what was said about (university) President Eisenhower:

At Columbia, Eisenhower took a moderate position in the face of the Red Scare: He accepted a gift from the Communist government of Poland to establish a chair in Polish studies but also defended the dismissal of a left-wing member from Teachers College and served on a national commission that published a handbook declaring that communists should be excluded from employment as teachers.

But his tenure did not solely consist of stances on political issues.

[H]e prevented legendary football coach Lou Little from leaving for Yale, and regularly attended the Lions' contests at Baker Field.

Rah rah rah! But Columbia itself summed Eisenhower's tenure up as follows:

Never the most engaged of presidents...

This pretty much sums up the evaluation of Eisenhower's term as President of the United States, where (at least on the surface) the President seemed remote from the tanglings of the politicians. He left that to his Vice President, Richard Nixon.

Douglas E. Clark wrote his dissertation on Eisenhower's tenure at Columbia. The abstract summarizes the positive and negative aspects of Eisenhower's (university) presidency:

[U]nder his leadership, Columbia moved forward with an important administrative restructuring plan, improved its finances, and established a professional development operation. Furthermore, Eisenhower's status as a world figure raised Columbia's institutional profile.


[H]is lack of both prior academic experience and a full understanding of academic culture diminished his capacity to lead at Columbia and damaged his credibility with faculty.

One could argue that Eisenhower was more effective with Congress than he was with Columbia's faculty, but that was not how it appeared at the time.

Acting on the premise that presidential efforts to purge a legislator would backfire, Eisenhower worked behind the scenes to encourage the Senate itself to conduct hearings on McCarthy's actions. Carried live on television, the Army-McCarthy hearings contributed to McCarthy's decline in public support and his subsequent formal condemnation by the Senate. His colleagues began to ostracize him, and he soon became politically impotent. Because Eisenhower's contribution to McCarthy's demise was largely indirect and behind the scenes, his seeming inaction with respect to McCarthy helped reinforce the contemporary impression of Eisenhower's political passivity.

Perhaps Eisenhower was working behind the scenes in Manhattan also.
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