The Organization Prez?

As its lead story Sunday, the New York Times offered up the assertion that George W. Bush is bringing “a corporate look” to the White House and is reorganizing the government to “function with the crisp efficiency of a blue-chip corporation.” This echoes an earlier piece in the Times’ Sunday magazine (headlined “C.E.O., U.S.A.”), which asserted that Bush’s Cabinet selection process was giving America “a rolling seminar on management.” After all (as both stories noted), Bush is a Harvard M.B.A.

And this means what? Well, here are some examples of the new, corporationlike White House style described in yesterday’s story: Wear proper attire. Be courteous. Avoid tardiness. These do not suggest the rules of an American corporation, or at least not the corporation as we think of it today. They suggest the rules of a prep school.

Maybe that isn’t fair. But if the Bush style, as described by the Times, does resemble the corporate idea, it resembles a dated and widely discredited version of it—especially when you throw in another of the axioms mentioned in yesterday’s story, “Don’t be a workaholic.” (Bush apparently leaves the office by 6:30 every day.) What this sounds like is a large company circa The Organization Man, a time not often associated with “crisp efficiency” in corporate America. Instead, thoughtless conformity and a lack of creativity were the hallmarks of big, bloated businesses whose employees were more possessed of a sense of entitlement than a taste for entrepreneurship (or so we’ve been hearing for years now). In fact, those fat and lazy companies, with their blue- and gray-suited executives streaming out the door at 6:30, were such mind-numbing bureaucracies that they were routinely compared to—the government!

According to First Son, Bill Minutaglio’s Bush bio, the president’s favorite class at Harvard was called Human Organization and Behavior: “Bush was almost single-mindedly interested in the way companies were organized, their structural dynamics, their pecking order, the food chain, the way management was structured.” This is the sort of org-chart fiddling that we associate with TheMan in the Gray Flannel Suit, not with capital class heroes like Jack Welch or Jim Clark. In any case, our new vision of how businesses work is supposed to be the opposite of all this: They are open-minded and meritocratic places that reward creativity and results, no matter what you’re wearing, and no one leaves at 6:30 if they want to maximize shareholder value. (Actually, while the current cliché is to refer to the Clinton management style as “grad school bull session,” you could just as easily spin it as the classic startup culture so thoroughly romanticized in the late 1990s—working crazy hours, wearing polo shirts, ordering pizza, etc. Of course, the startup culture lately seems about as popular as the Marc Rich pardon, but that’s another story.)

Curiously, Bush’s actual experience in the business world had nothing to do with tweaking the “structural dynamics” of big organizations. His adventures at Arbusto and its successor outfits among the West Texas wildcatters revolved around hustling up capital and punching holes in the ground in search of the sort of oil strike that makes millionaires overnight. (It never happened, but still.) And as a part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, he served not as an organizational theorist but as a kind of deal-maker, salesman, and public face. Basically, he was the team’s politician.

Anyway, yes, it’s true that Bush has an M.B.A. It may also be true that he is making the White House a more efficient place, and who knows, maybe one day the benefits of Karl Rove’s improved punctuality will trickle down to us all. But this business about Bush’s corporate CEO-like style is nonsense. Whatever his skills may be, they have nothing to do with firsthand experience from the world of blue-chip corporations, crisp and efficient or otherwise.

Now, the world of prep schools—there’s an area where the president does have some firsthand experience.