War Stories

The People’s Choice for Homeland Security Chief: Jack Welch

Slate’s readers speak; will President Bush listen?

Should Welch run homeland security?

The ballots have been cast. The verdict is in. Jack Welch, the former CEO and chairman of General Electric, should be the next secretary of homeland security.

Last Wednesday, I wrote a column arguing that the Department of Homeland Security is essentially a gigantic merger-and-acquisition enterprise—22 far-flung federal agencies with a combined budget of $40 billion and a payroll of 183,000 employees—and that, therefore, it should be led by a superb manager from the world of corporate M&As. Not being a business columnist, I asked readers to send me their nominations for the job. I received 79 e-mails, many of them touchingly earnest. Welch was the winner by an overwhelming plurality, receiving 15 votes or just under one-fifth of the total.

The closest runners-up—former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet—won just three votes apiece. They also seem exceedingly unlikely: O’Neill has publicly lambasted Bush; Buffet is having too much fun in Omaha.

Several intriguing candidates received one or two votes: Marsha Johnson Evans, a retired Navy admiral and the head of the American Red Cross; Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Lou Gerstner, * former CEO and chairman of IBM; Jamie Dimon, president of JPMorgan Chase; and Ken Feinberg, former head of the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund.

Yet Welch, almost 70 but still vigorous, is the most intriguing as well as the most popular. He would make an outsized Cabinet secretary. His demeanor might intimidate even most presidents, his lifestyle is famously flamboyant, a scandalous divorce lurks in his recent past. He also has a shaky reputation for dealing with union labor. The intransigencies of the federal bureaucracy and the pesterings of congressional committees might tax his patience beyond the breaking point.

Still, consider: He transformed a quaint company worth $12 billion into a global growth machine worth over $300 billion. In his 20 years running General Electric (he retired in 2000), it acquired over 600 companies with a workforce of 276,000 employees in 100 countries—not just in appliances and electronics, but in financial services, energy, health care, insurance, infrastructure, advanced materials, and a media empire that includes NBC Television. And he molded nearly all of them into sector leaders. His management style—famously laid out in many business-press profiles as well as his 2001 best-selling memoir, Jack: Straight From the Gut—was demanding and disciplined, but also decentralized, non-hierarchical, and results-oriented. His key concept was the “boundary-less” sharing of ideas across all divisions of the empire. Isn’t this just what the Department of Homeland Security desperately needs—a manager who sets firm standards, lets his experts do their job, coordinates their resources, integrates their functions, and eliminates redundancies and deadwood?

I phoned Welch in his Boston office to tell him about the Slate readers’ poll and to ask whether he would take the job if it were offered.

“Look, I’ve got a nice life here!” he bellowed in a gruffly good-natured tone. “It’s a beautiful day in Boston. I’m very happy. No one’s offered me anything. It’s ridiculous to speculate.” He added, “This job needs someone who’s also well-versed in the intricacies of governmental politics. So, I’d dispute your premise.”

“In other words,” I asked him, “if President Bush called you, you’d tell him the same thing: ‘Thanks but no thanks’?”

Welch chuckled slightly and replied, “I don’t want to comment.”

The striking thing about this last exchange: He didn’t quite say “No.”

So, how about it, President Bush? Want to give “Neutron Jack” a try?

Correction, Jan. 10, 2004: This piece originally referred to former IBM CEO and Chairman Lou Gerstner as Lou Gertner. (Return to the corrected sentence.)