Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1998
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APRIL 1998


The Incidental Presidency
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Kevin O'Malley

I have been thinking a great deal about the presidency lately. It has nothing to do with the scandals that swirl around the incumbent as I write this, and that doubtless will take twists and turns by the time this is published. The precipitant was my reading of a review essay of books on the Reagan years. According to the author, many such writings portray a president with a lot of time on his hands--a chief executive who sent birthday greetings to staffers he barely knew, who crossed items off lists because it made him feel as if he were accomplishing things, and who, when meetings ended early, filled the time by telling jokes. What truly busy executive would even know the names of obscure staffers, let alone care about their birthdays, or do anything other than race from one pointless meeting to the next? When I was an undergraduate taking political science courses, the clichˇ was that "the presidency may be too big a job for one man." The problem today may be that the job is too small to keep one person busy.

Every president within my memory has, like Reagan, showed signs of having too many idle hours. I will delicately pass by the Kennedy and Clinton years. To see the point, all you have to do is think about Richard Nixon sitting in the White House micromanaging his paranoia or Jimmy Carter whacking away at an attack rabbit. That is how guys act when they have nothing better to do. (Even post-presidential behavior is that of people driven around the bend by boredom: Nixon went into political rehab, Carter into the building trade, and George Bush jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.)

By my rough count, the last two presidents have taken 10 to 20 times more vacation days than one of those over-paid, underworked professors you hear about on talk shows: namely me. Presidents eat far more dinners out than the rest of us and get to see first-run movies at home, not just the good old Friday night Chinese carry-out with the VCR playing whatever was left at Blockbuster. Presidents travel, meet interesting people, and get to inspect cool things like aircraft carriers. I envied Gerald Ford his ski trips and I envy Bill Clinton his beach walks. What's a little vilification in the press if you can do those things and still draw a six-figure salary?

So, what can we do about the presidency? On that score, management--in this case, we, the people--can learn from the experiences of businesses and bureaucracies that have dealt with similarly underemployed employees.

One approach is to rewrite the job description. It wouldn't hurt to give the president some clearly specified things to do, with full accountability for doing them: "five hours a week promoting world peace,""seven hours dismantling a bloated bureaucracy," "one day a week improving the military and the nation's schools by cutting their funding," etc. Because of the nature of the office, it might improve the presidency even more to specify things not to do ("no more than 10 hours a week blaming subordinates, attacking the media, or denying knowledge"; "no more than one war per term"). The incentive for a good performance would be a book contract and a significant building, airport, or monument named in the president's honor. A poor performance would carry with it a biography by Kitty Kelly and the ex-president's name on IRS headquarters.

Two other business world approaches to the presidency problem would require changing how we think about who should be president. First, we could follow the examples set by fastfood chains. We could hire a retired person who is already bored, who would be happy to be out of the house and who needs the cash, and for whom a sex scandal would be wishful thinking. The risk would be the possibility of having a president who tells rambling, meaningless stories and falls asleep during important meetings. The republic, however, could survive that once again.

A different strategy would be to emulate what downsizing businesses do when they want to be leaner, meaner, and cheaper: hire temps. The advantage here is that we could select the right leader for the moment. A period of deep national anxiety? Hire a grandmother. Shocking statistics about American obesity and poor diet? Richard Simmons. A state visit to Japan? Someone who can handle sushi. A foreign trip to commemorate a war? Hire a historian, or at least someone who knows who fought whom and why. We could have avoided a lot of presidential gaffes by using temps. We would also save a bundle on benefits.

I am not optimistic that we will either change the presidency into something that commands the respect the office once had, or scale it down to the disrespect Americans now seem to have for it. My main consolation is that we are equally unlikely to follow another course businesses and bureaucracies take when a job shrinks into irrelevance and the person in it is not performing satisfactorily. I don't know how we could promote a president.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.