After the carnage of World War I, Walter Lippman offered a prescription for a new type of leadership in words that ought to be cast in bronze and mounted on the White House walls for presidents to ponder:
In a crisis, the only advice is to use a gun, or make a speech, utter a stirring slogan, offer a compromise, employ any quick means available to quell the mutiny . . . It is only on shore where men plan for many voyages that they can afford to, and must for their own salvation, deal with these causes that take a long time to remove. They will be dealing in years and generations, not in emergencies alone. And nothing will put a greater strain upon their wisdom than the necessity of distinguishing false crises from real ones. For when there is panic in the air, with one crisis tripping over the heels of another, actual dangers mixed with imaginary scares, there is no chance at all for the constructive use of reason, and any order seems preferable to any disorder.
The government's not about to crumble, despite the shock waves that swept through Washington last week, and the current political spasm will pass. But once again Jimmy Carter's presidency has been shaken by new impressions of instability just as it appeared that people were beginning to rally around his new bid for leadership.The president's hope is that the events of last week - the most disconcerting coming out of the White House since the Nixon years - will be put in perspective as he takes his administration in a new direction.
That won't be easy, for the dramatic actions of last week have created problems for Carter within the government, and quite possibly with public perceptions of his political standards.
The question isn't over the firing of a Cabinet officer, or two or three or four.Or more. For months there were growing signs of displeasure directed at the Cabinet by top members of Carter's White House. "We've been more loyal to them than many of them have been to us," one person close to the president said weeks ago.
It's how the changes were made, with what impact, that caused concern. To an extraordinary degree all of government has been affected by the shakeup/evaluation process now under way. The tremor that's swept through the government has exposed old fears and insecurities, the very kinds of things the Carter administration hoped to reduce by restoring stability and better management to Washington's bureaucratic fiefdoms.
When Carter became president, morale inside the government had fallen to probably its all-time low. During the Nixon years an unprecedented attempt to politicize the federal work force had taken place. Political "must" hirings and appointments of politically "loyal" personnel left bitter, dispirited attitudes inside the government. Outside, public esteem of government had dropped dramatically. The words "public service" had become an object of public scorn. This dear deterioraton came on top of greatly increasing strains on government stability.
At the sprawling Department of Health, Education, an Welfare, a super-governmental structure that reaches into every corner of every American's life, instability has been the history of the institution. By Carter's inauguration, HEW had been in existence for 23 years. In that time it had been led by 11 Cabinet secretaries. Their average length of service was a scant 2.1 years.
Any experienced Washington hand knew it took almost that long simply to learn the names of all the offices and bureaus in the department. And every change of a secretary brought a change in the entire upper management - the under secretary and assistant secretaries and all the other presidentially appointed executives who oversaw the department's manifold functions.
Nor was HEW some aberration in the government hierarchy. The same managerial impermanence - always leading to internal instability, if not turmoil - existed elsewhere. From John Kennedy until Jimmy Carter, for instance, there had been six secretaries of labor and seven secretaries of commerce. Again, the turnover at the top came about every two years.
Top management teams were leaving after barely becoming acquainted with their organizations and responsibilities. Understanding the programs they were charged with administering, to say nothing of establishing their own policies and procedures, was difficult at best. Necessity forced them to depend on the management directives of their predecessors. They were all walking on the barnacles of the government past.
Carter's promise of making the government work better, of restoring a sense of excellence, of measuring performance by the highest standard - why not the best? - was predicated on getting the best people and leaving them in place. Thus, it was hoped, they could truly and efficiently manage their agencies.
Full four-year terms were what the president asked of his Cabinet officials, ensuring stability at the top for the first time in decades. Until last week, that's what he got.
Now, in getting each of his highest officials to offer to resign at once, the shock waves of instability began anew. And now, as one senior government official observed, everyone of the new officials undoubtedly will feel compelled to bring in his own top aides to replace the old upper-echelon ones. "That means," he said, "that for a time everything in the departments will stop." To one of those top HEW officials, last week's events brought "an overwhelming sense of sadness because of the waste - the waste of so many people who have worked so extraordinarily hard for 30 months."
Nothing on the record indicates that the officials were fired because they failed to manage their departments, or failed to seek the best. Joe Califano had done a superb job, perhaps the best in the department's history, he says the president told him as he fired him. The White House strongly denies Califano's version. But there's no doubt that one of Califano's perceived crimes was political disloyalty.
Now the president has to worry lest political loyalty, not competence, not the best, seems to be the standard that counts.