Georgie Anne Geyer

The Business of Government

WASHINGTON -- Government, we have heard over and over since Donald J. Trump started campaigning for president, should be "run like a business." This, the argument goes, will put the nation in proper running order and (what else?) "Make America Great Again!"

One can also surmise that one of the reasons -- in fact, a major reason -- the president is said to be brooding, threatening to politically demolish wayward Republicans and getting even by waving his power around angrily during these first 100 days is, he thinks he IS running the government like a business. But more and more Americans don't seem to think so.

What has happened? Is his distress caused just by his rather obvious bad manners, his arrogance, and his strange inability to get things done despite decades of business acumen, or are we missing something major? How is it possible for a man who has built extraordinary skyscrapers to be making the same juvenile mistakes over and over?

Perhaps we're looking for answers in complexity when the problem is really rather simple.

My father was a highly successful small-business man (Geyer's Dairy on the South Side of Chicago), and I have the deepest respect for business owners. But we must realize that these men and women most often hold the cards in their hands and the control over their projects.

They have the money, or know how to get it, and, if they are good and lucky, they make wise decisions. Often, they make all of the decisions.

But not so in politics, and especially in something as unremittingly complex, open-ended and filled with endless possibility as presidential politics. In this world, you have hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of constituencies, citizens and consumers watching your every move, and you'd better know how to please them.

You may appear to be the boss, but being the boss in politics is knowing how to inspire others to support the actions you have already decided on but need their backing.

The only good editorial I've seen on this phenomenon appeared in late March in the Financial Times. It quoted the late prominent political scientist James Q. Wilson, who pointed out that "while business can focus on simple tasks -- usually making profit -- government agencies must satisfy multiple constraints. The constraints are often dismissed as red tape, but they are there because citizens demand them."

In fact, they are there because good citizens demand accountability. And one of the big problems with the Trump presidency is that he doesn't act as though he accepts that special responsibility, if only because he so-so-so hates to lose.

Rather, he acts like a multi-billionaire who is used to making all the decisions. In short, he acts just like himself. Moreover, a dangerous number of his closest advisers and cohorts are imbued with the same attitudes.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could, as chief of ExxonMobil, walk into meetings with world leaders like the Lone Ranger and almost no one would hear about it. But when he made his first trip overseas as the nation's top diplomat and refused to take the usual group of journalists with him in a smart-aleck gesture of measured contempt for traditional ways and the press, the trip was a big failure. There was no coverage. Fine for a businessman; disastrous for a secretary of state.

These thoughts do not mean that no businessmen or women ever should become president of the United States. But it behooves us to study soberly (for a change?) the qualities we truly need in a leader who so profoundly affects the entire world.

President George H.W. Bush -- Father Bush, let's call him -- marks to me the end of the Eastern Establishment: the great families like the Roosevelts, the Harrimans and the Bushes who formed the dominant culture of national politics when we were at our best.

But those qualities need not disappear in the mists of our present confusion. "Prudence" was Father Bush's favorite word, and it characterized his wise four years in office. To prudence, I'd add comity, fairness, proportionality, respect for oneself and for others, and just plain common sense.

Can we find these again? Of course we can, if we know where to look for them.

Until then -- SO SAD.

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