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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: Governing without 'run for sheriff'

| Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, 6:39 p.m.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara holds a news conference at the Pentagon in November 1961. He was one of the Kennedy administration's 'whiz kids' drawn from the top ranks of business and academia. (AP Photo | Harvey Georges, File)
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara holds a news conference at the Pentagon in November 1961. He was one of the Kennedy administration's 'whiz kids' drawn from the top ranks of business and academia. (AP Photo | Harvey Georges, File)

In “The Best and the Brightest,” author David Halberstam described the Vietnam War's hard lessons and the folly of the Kennedy administration's so-called “whiz kids.” Newcomers to the craft of government, they were drawn from the top ranks of industry and academia and charged with using their business know-how to reshape foreign policy.

They were an impressive lot. Even the worldly Lyndon Johnson marveled at their brilliance when describing John Kennedy's first Cabinet meeting to fellow Texan and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Rayburn, Johnson's mentor and friend, was skeptical.

“You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” he told Johnson, “but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

As it turned out, Rayburn was right and Johnson was wrong. All the skills and intellect that made the “whiz kids” successful outside of government led to failure on the inside. It was a tragic miscalculation, and hubris was the sin.

Donald Trump, touting his gold-plated lifestyle, impressed his supporters, too. They wanted the confident guy with the private jet who promised he could make America as successful as he had made himself. It would be easy, he claimed.

Yet with Republican control of Congress, he is still a celebrity apprentice in the White House. Other than a new conservative Supreme Court justice, tax-code revisions that shortchange his voters while rewarding his rich pals and the dismantling of clean-air and clean-water protections, he has little to show. As it turns out, government is not so easy.

Democrats could easily repeat the mistake in 2020. Oprah Winfrey is just the latest celebrity to be mentioned for president and, along with Dwayne Johnson, Mark Cuban and a few others, they all have fame, fortune and success on the outside — without the experience or skills to be president.

Government is its own thing. Business principles can and should inform our government leaders, but the goals of government include helping the least among us, not growing profits and paying dividends to shareholders. And politics, the engine of government, is about compromise. None of us gets all that we want, but all of us get something and the nation advances.

There is both an art and science to this — not better than, but different from, the qualities required in business.

When you are sick and tired of your political leaders, “throw the bums out” has a certain appeal. But not all politicians are bums, and it is better to find the good ones, schooled in public service, who at least “had run for sheriff once.”

Among the memorable quotes in Michael Wolff's book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” a keen one comes from David Bossie, described as a longtime Trump adviser. Bossie took issue with Frank Sinatra's hit “New York, New York,” in which the crooner sang, “if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere.”

“Frank Sinatra was wrong,” Bossie said. “If you can make it in New York, you can't necessarily make it in Washington.”

Amen.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).

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