Sunday, July 18, 2004

How assumptions about effective leadership inform attitudes about George Bush 

The website of Harper's Magazine just published a list of things that President Bush is not, which Harper's terms "negative capability." The list comes from the President's own statements collected from the public record over the last seven years. Examples include:
The President of the United States is not a fact-checker.
I’m not a statistician.
I’m not a numbers-cruncher.
I’m not one of these bean counters.
I’m not very analytical.
I’m not a precision guy.
The President is not a micromanager.

You get the idea.

Whether or not the list in fact reflects poorly on the President, it is not unfair to assume that Harper's published the list so that their readers could get a good chuckle.

Indeed, both the national press and the flower and chivalry of the Democratic party make a habit of laughing, or complaining, about how Republican Presidents do not know a lot of facts. The press mocks or mocked Bush 43, Reagan and, to a great degree, Eisenhower for their detachment from the details. To my admittedly right-of-center eye, the press has always been much more impressed with Presidents and candidates who know a lot of facts -- Clinton is the archtype, but Gore, Mondale, Dukakis, Carter and Stevenson all impressed us with their command of detailed facts. Kerry seems to follow the same pattern.

In short, my gut impression is that a detailed fisking of national press accounts in the last forty or fifty years would reveal that journalists admire politicians that know a lot of stuff, and that at the national level Democratic politicians are much more likely to display knowledge of the facts and figures that so impress the press.

So why do journalists like detail-lovers, and why is it that so many Democrats seem to love the details?

Journalists respect people who have a great command of details because details are the journalist's stock and trade. Journalists gather facts and report them, and small differences in those facts can make a big difference in the quality and professionalism of their product. Indeed, journalists make a big deal out of catching people in authority -- politicians, generals or corporate executives -- in moments of ignorance or inconsistency. It is therefore not surprising that journalists, who know a lot of little things and have a fetish for consistency in others, respect other people who master details.

Why do the Democrats seem to excel at mastering the details, and thereby impressing the press? I believe it is because the elites in the national Democratic Party are overwhelmingly lawyers and professors. Lawyers and professors are required by the practice of their profession to personally and specifically know the detailed facts that support their arguments and their decisions. Lawyers and professors display their own actual knowledge of facts in courtrooms, conference rooms and classrooms every day, and they derive tremendous professional pride from their ability to master and articulate the evidence that supports the statements that they make in those forums.

Why do Republicans, on the other hand, so often seem to blow the details? Because elites in the national Republican Party tend to be executives by training, whether from business or the military. Effective executives know that they cannot succeed for long through mastery of all the facts necessary to make a decision. Executives believe that their first job is to hire good people, and their second job is to set the direction of the organization. Sure, they will make the really big decisions, but good corporate executives and generals believe quite consciously that if they have to know the nitty-gritty details behind a policy recommendation they have failed miserably in the primary task of hiring and guiding competent people. To a well-trained corporate executive or general, mastery of the sort of details demanded at press conferences is at best a waste of time, and more likely an admission of failure.

In other words, the relevance of personal knowledge of detailed facts to the profesional success of lawyers, professors and journalists is very high, whereas its relevance is very low to the effectiveness of corporate or military executives. Democrats -- and journalists -- believe that it is important for the President to know a lot of facts personally. Republicans, who as a national party know a lot more about military and commercial leadership than Democrats, do not subscribe to the view that personal factual knowledge is more important than leadership ability.

Since journalists think so much like lawyers and professors, they tend to ask questions that they hope will expose gaps or inconsistencies in a President's personal factual knowledge, however meaningless that knowledge might ultimately be. This style of questioning usually works to the benefit of Democratic candidates, trained as they are to respond to detailed factual inquiries. It also means that journalists are often quick to equate a President's lack of factual knowledge with incompetence. This equation is false, but it goes a long way to explaining why so many people on the left -- lawyers, professors and journalists -- can't let go of the idea that George W. Bush is stupid. Since he could not succeed in a courtroom or a classroom or a newsroom, he must be.

Interestingly, it is the rare journalist who bothers to wonder whether it is in America's interests to measure the management of its executive branch against the unbelievably low standards set by law firms and universities.


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