Wheels coming off?

Well, at least a couple of lug nuts in the gutter. The Power episode is a complete screwup; as far as I can tell, everyone who’s touched it f__ed the goat.

First, Power. She’s been a reporter and knows you can’t go off the record backwards, and when you talk to a reporter you have to think before you speak.

Next, Gerri Peev. She’s apparently unclear on the difference between what one should do and what one may do without actually getting in trouble. She also appears to be in business for herself, clearly besotted being interviewed on MSNBC today. Her original story is in any case no masterpiece of reporting, including in the second par the remarkable sentence “…Power…let slip the camp’s true feelings about the former first lady.” How she could assess the true feelings of the entire Obama operation, or what such a vague phrase actually means anyway, is not revealed.

Every reporter faces times at which it’s necessary to distinguish between the facts and the truth, and here her clear responsibility was to kill the slip of the tongue and let the story carry the gist of Power’s views another way. She might recover and be a real reporter, or she might decide it’s better to be Gerri Rivera; it certainly pays better. Given that “newspaper” is used to describe UK dailies only for want of a better word, we shouldn’t expect much. It’s sad when a kid faces a tough fork in the road and chooses the wrong path, but it happens. Tucker Carlson landed on her with all four feet and good for him; she played lawyer and further established her modest professional insight. This kind of reporting doesn’t help people understand the candidates and this issues; it does the opposite because it drives political discourse further into recitation of rehearsed sound bites.

Power did the right thing to offer to resign, but Obama or some blindsided staffer did the wrong thing, and this is the big deal in this sad history: he (or she) accepted the offer. Why is this such a bad move? Because it throws real talent out the door, and because it will ripple through the whole organization, making everyone go in the “watch your back and hold your tongue” business instead of the “get the candidate nominated” business, and these are in no way the same.

This interview blurt was a mistake, and everyone makes them. It was not a mistake typical of Power or indicative of general bad judgment; it was the kind of mistake smart people learn a lot from. To fire people for this kind of thing embodies one of the worst and most destructive theories of leadership and management, which is that you can fire and threaten your way to success. This is the management of people insecure about whether they have any real authority and too lazy to do the real work. It doesn’t work, of course, partly because of the poisonous effect on everyone not fired yet, and partly because the best you can do after firing a good person is to hire someone who hasn’t had the chance to make that mistake yet, and especially hasn’t learned what the person on her way out the door has most assuredly learned. If you think your new person is less likely to make that mistake than the one who’s licking her wounds and thinking very hard about how to not screw up again, you will eventually learn to think differently.

Oh yeah, Hillary blew it too. She might be president someday and very anxious to recruit the best people to help her deal with a complicated and scary world, not to mention leading a big team. She missed a chance to get out front and say “I know Samantha Power is a really smart person and a heavy hitter in her field. She misspoke and I know she doesn’t really mean it; we all say things we regret. Let’s move on.”

[Thanks: the foregoing is partly informed by some conversation on an off-the-record writers’ listserv.]

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.