Today marks the beginning of National Secretaries Week, so this might be an appropriate moment to examine the work of some highly paid secretaries who have gotten their boss into a lot of trouble.
I refer primarily to the White House secretariat and to a lesser extent to Cabinet secretaries. The president has not been well served by some of these aides.
A secretary is not a stenographer, although he or she may do typing. A secretary is not a clerk, although clerical tasks may be required. A secretary is not a bookkeeper, although record-keeping may be part of a secretary's duties.
The word secretary comes to us from the Latin secretum (secret). One basic meaning of secretary is "a confidant, an adviser, one who is entrusted with the secrets or confidence of a superior," e.g., Secretary of State.
In the business world, a secretary handles correspondence and/or manages confidential detail work.
The scope and the confidentiality of a secretary's duties are the most visible difference between stenographers and secretaries. The steno writes letters and brews coffee. The secretary manages everything that has not been specifically assigned to somebody else. Many secretaries become, in effect, assistant managers.
Many of President Carter's troubles have had their origins in a secretariat that hasn't done its job adequately. A good staff can be invaluable, but Carter's has often been a liability.
Example: When Carter invited other athletes and Olympic officials to the White House to hear why we should boycott the Moscow Olympics, Puerto Rico's contingent was overlooked.
Hurt at being left out, the Puerto Ricans cabled the White House and asked to be included in the invitation.
They were ignored. Their request wasn't even answered.
It was no surprise, therefore, that a top headline in Saturday morning's newspapers announced that American citizens from Puerto Rico would be kicking sand in their president's face by going to Moscow.
Is this Jimmy Carter's fault? To the extent that he failed to fire the people who were causing things of this kind to happen to him, I suppose it is. One man can't keep track of everything; that's what he hires a staff for. But if the captain can't make his crew shape up, who can?
Here's another example: Carter went on television to announce that except for newsmen, Americans are prohibited from traveling to Iran.
At the moment, Barbara Timm was already en route to Tehran to attempt to visit her hostage son. You and I knew about this because it had been in the newspapers and on newscasts. But the White House secretariat had not yet heard the secret.
An efficient secretariat would have brought Mrs. Timm to the president's attention before he announced his travel ban. The delicate issue of a mother's emotional wish to see her son would have been discussed, and a policy would have been decided upon.
Had Carter been reminded that Mrs. Timm was already in Paris, it is quite likely he would have assigned somebody to get in touch with her at once. The emissary's instructions might have been: "Warn her of the dangers inherent in the course she's embarked on, and try to persuade her not to change her mind, give her a special permit to go. We can't be in the position of forbidding a mother to try to see her son. If she's going, at least let her go with our help and our blessing."
In this instance, as in a hundred that went before it, an alert staff could have saved the president from public embarrassment. But once again, the men and women who are supposed to protect their superior failed to do their jobs properly. Now Puerto Ricans will be going to Moscow to let the Soviets make propaganda over the commonwealth's status, and Mrs. Timm will be studying her English translation of the Koran and proclaiming her eagerness to get down on her knees before the ayatollah. These problems have arisen because the president's secretariat, which is supposed to help him find solutions, is made up of too many problems and not enough problem solvers.
If Jimmy Carter is not reelected, much of the blame will devolve upon the members of his staff who have permitted too many details to fall between the cracks. It is rather difficult to generate an aura of dynamic leadership when your top assistants act like Keystone Kops.
In the business world, secretaries are known for the troubles they don't let their bosses get into. Perhaps that's why good secretaries are in such demand, and why they command high salaries.
Business secretaries of the world, I salute you at the start of this National Secretaries Week. When you do your job properly, you make life a lot smoother for the executives you serve.