Friday, November 26, 2010

The Boy in the Bubble

For a number of years, I was the designer and producer of an annual performance report, for a government executive whom we will call "Dan." Now, Dan was a man on his way up the ladder, and this publication reported annually on data collected government-wide, the compilation of which significantly enhanced the mission of the agency for which I work. It was his claim to fame, and he and I understood its gravity.

As time went on, the farther Dan went up the latter, the more aloof he became, particularly towards me. It reached the point where he would call me into his office, and with his staff lined up next to the table looking like a cadet review, Dan would sit there with me, and pick at each typographic error in the proof one by one. I could go through it in two minutes, but no, he had to spend twenty minutes making a spectacle out of it. After all, how could I be so careless? Never mind that most of the goobers in the audience were too lazy to use a spell-checker.

Dan's real problem was his staff, most of whom were transfers from other specialties of policy, with little experience in this one. A project manager's incompetence could be excused easily; after all, he would be retiring soon. Why go to all that trouble, when there was always someone else to blame?

Dan couldn't exercise the luxury of stepping back and taking the long view of things. The report eventually outlived its usefulness, but I wonder how much difference it would have made, if a solution had been reached that was based on the problem? It would have required looking within, and challenging conventions, in the form of staff members who find comfort (and inevitable promotions) in their conventions.

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We've been pretty hard on Peggy Noonan around here, ever since she threw her own convictions to the wind back in 2008, and became an apologist for the current President. Since then, she probably learned that it wasn't necessarily a ticket to better cocktail parties for the next four years, and has thought the wiser of it. More power to her, in this case, so we'll give her credit where it's due, in this case with her latest column.

Presidents always get to the point where they want to escape Washington, and their lives, and their jobs. But they never can. ... Once you're in the bubble -- once you're in the midst of a huge apparatus, once you have the cars and the aides and the security and the staffers -- there is no getting out of it.

This tends to go on down the line, as people surround themselves with minions who tell them what they want their boss to hear. It is the curse of sheepish men who achieve authority, to check their common sense at the entrance to the building. An appointment by the President to direct a particular office in an agency, must rely on a deputy already on staff, generally a non-political career executive, to tell them how things work, to handle the internal minutiae. The deputy becomes the gatekeeper for access, the truth behind the director's oft-mentioned "open door" policy to his staff. It doesn't work out that way, of course, thus the appointee leaves his post at the end of his tenure, often unaware of how little he has accomplished, to say nothing of how much damage he has done.

It's not an inconvenience, it's a humiliation. In the new machine, and in the pat-downs, citizens are told to spread their feet and put their hands in the air. It's an attitude of submission -- the same one the cops make the perps assume on "America's Most Wanted." Then, while you stand there in public in the attitude of submission, strangers touch intimate areas of your body. It's a violation of privacy. It leaves people feeling reduced. It's like society has decided you're a meat sack and not a soul. Humans have a natural, untaught understanding of the apartness of their bodies, and they don't like it when their space is violated. They recoil, and protest.

For such a loss of reality in the Nation's highest office, Noonan provides a scenario of how things might well be. Having worked in the White House herself, she may be on to something.

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