Since When Is Competency a Criteria?

I am ready to declare, after 75 years of personal observation, the stunning revelation that the common ingredient in every failed political administration is when competency is not a criteria.  The Biden Administration’s greatest success will be in making the Carter Administration no longer the worst Administration ever. The most recent “issue performance” national polling data offers some breathtaking evidence to support my assertion:  73% disapprove on inflation, 68% on the economy, 61% on immigration, 59% on guns, 57% on energy policy, and 55% on handling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And then there was the shameful abandonment of the people of Afghanistan. There must be a number for that. I have yet to meet a single person in either political party who disagrees. Numbers like these are unprecedented in American politics. You’d have to search back to Franklin Pierce to find a president as bad, and he almost single-handedly created the conditions for the Civil War.  

Biden’s cabinet is also failing spectacularly, and for the same reason:  incompetence. The private sector work experience of his entire cabinet averages 2.6 years. No one in his cabinet has ever run a business or made a payroll. In what way does this reflect our nation or its values? Whose values do they represent? Can we expect people who don’t understand basic economics and can’t define inflation to understand how their department policies impact it?

I must confess that supporting the Obama administration was a difficult challenge for me, having been a Republican most of my adult life. In Obama, I saw a unique, once-in-a-generation viable opportunity to elect a black president. I wanted to see it happen. America needed change. I thought it would send a powerful message to the world, and to minorities everywhere, about our national values. I did everything I could to help and was determined to contribute my domain expertise and competency to make a positive impact on Administration policy.  

Obama’s Administration started out with such promise but never managed to achieve much. I was modestly successful in making significant contributions on a few policy issues. I was in the White House routinely meeting with staff, met Obama many times, and was in several meetings he attended. I sat in meetings with Biden on several occasions. I also served as one of three working group leaders on a vital Department of Homeland Security led interagency task force on Cyber Security, for then Secretary Janet Napolitano. I served three terms on the State Department Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy under then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and again under Secretary John Kerry. I was in many meetings with both. I also attended many meetings with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and with many congressional leaders. 

Interacting with people of this political stature over an extended period gave me a perspective on politicians that most never gain. I found that most politicians are nihilists. They will say anything and act like they believe anything that will serve their interests of the moment.

After Obama’s reelection in 2012, I was slated to be the US Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a branch of the United Nations based in Montreal. I was very excited at this prospect for several reasons. First, I had been a pilot for more than 40 years at the time, with a great deal of experience flying jets all over the world. That kind of domain expertise is hard to come by.  

Second, while working on cyber security issues with DHS I had concluded that a global governance structure was needed for cyber to rein in the wild west environment that cyber had become. It wasn’t then, and still isn’t, that poor cyber governance reins; it’s that there’s simply no governance. I wrote essays and spoke at several high-level dinner meetings on this topic, one chaired by Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State under Clinton). The tech giant reps in attendance opined that the existing system was just fine. Yes, of course they thought that. 

I had also concluded that the best existing global governance model, one that could provide a roadmap to a viable global cyber governance structure, was ICAO. I planned to use my term as Ambassador to study ICAO and provide the next president with a plan for how to make it happen. At the time, Hillary Clinton looked very likely to be President in 2016. I would be ready. 

But, in March of 2012, I received a call from my handlers in Presidential Personal with bad news about my ambassadorship. At the last minute someone else had been selected for the ICAO posting. I was invited to the White House to talk about the situation and other options. When I pointed out that this position required significant domain expertise and competence, and a lost opportunity for improving cyber security long-term, their response left me dumbfounded:  “Since when is competency a criteria?” I sat there thinking to myself, “But, competency is one of my core values!” I politely excused myself, walked out of the White House, and never went back.  

This begs the question, what would competency in a presidential administration look like? Ronald Reagan’s cabinet was a collection of the most impressive and competent leaders our country has experienced since World War II:  Shultz, Baker, Regen, Bush Sr., Dole, Casey, Meese, Bennett, and on and on. They were the New York Yankees of politics. This country has never seen an administration that could even come close to their collective intelligence, experience, wisdom, and competency.  

The Reagan Administration started and ended with Ron and Nancy and their remarkable relationship. I don’t think I have ever met a couple who loved each other more. Their love letters are for the ages. He was a fabulous communicator. Intelligent, witty, humorous, articulate, and most importantly, very thoughtful about his language. When you heard him speak or read a speech he had written, his values poured out in a way that was completely authentic. When he spoke, you knew that he believed whatever he said was true. His values drove everything. 

After a truly horrible political decade, culminating in the one-term Administration of the worst president of my lifetime until now, Jimmy Carter, Reagan turned the 1980s into the best decade our nation has ever seen. That one decade changed the world and made everything we have today possible. It is truly remarkable what can be achieved when there is alignment of values between a President and the people he governs. Word War II offers another example of the same principle. FDR’s brilliant leadership, his breathtakingly competent cabinet, and a military leadership the likes of which we haven’t seen since, led our isolationist, depression-era nation through the most dramatic industrial, military, and foreign policy achievements the world has ever seen. 

Bill Clinton ran as a Democrat, but he led like an independent, and wanted to solve problems. I met him on several occasions and had the good fortune of being seated next to him at a private dinner once. I found him charming, charismatic, very intelligent, always knowing the facts better than anyone else, endlessly energetic, and competent. He had a very good cabinet. I’ve had the good fortune to know some of them, including Bill Perry, Warren Christopher and Mickey Kantor. Clinton had, like Reagan, the remarkable ability to disagree without being disagreeable. But charisma is not character. 

By 2000, McCain would have been a much better choice for the Republicans and certainly for the country. McCain lost the primary to Bush Jr., who was completely unprepared for the job.  Right out of the gate, Bush blew an enormous gift handed to him on a silver plate by the Clinton Administration:  peace with North Korea. While visiting Korea with a Stanford delegation led by Bill Perry, I had the good fortune to spend several days with the terrific career foreign service diplomat who had been slated to become our first Ambassador to North Korea. Bush wouldn’t sign off on the deal, which included a trilateral commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Bush did the same thing again with the Iranians, who in 2002 with the runup to the Iraq invasion, were desperate to make a deal with us. Bush wouldn’t even meet with them. We’ll never know what impact neo-con VP Cheney had on these events from his “undisclosed location.” We can only imagine where “axis of evil” originated from.

After 9/11, I very seriously doubt that McCain would have led the country into Iraq, a foolish adventure that cost our country dearly in so many ways, starting with trillions in national treasure, exhaustion of our military, creation of ISIS, and distraction from effectively dealing with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And then there was the failure of domestic economic oversight and regulatory control while all this was going on. Sub-prime mortgages? Seriously? Yes, the Republicans deserved to be thrown out of office.  

The Trump and Biden Administrations have taken us into the Twilight Zone phase of American politics. Trump was anything but presidential in his coarse narrative. Colorful, yes. Presidential, no. Trump is a populist and promoted policies that were good for the country, and what most Americans wanted. The country did well economically. But because he was so polarizing in his unrefined, confrontational speech, the nation became a political mess the likes of which made the 1960s and 1970s look like a carnival. Recall that over those twenty-years we went through five presidents, and three devastating political assassinations! Yet, this seems somehow much worse. It’s a very different world. There is real scale to the damage being done economically, sociologically, and to our underlying cultural values.  

How much of what has gone on over the last twenty years would have happened if the media had done the job it was supposed to be doing, holding both political parties accountable, accurately reporting what was happening, asking hard questions, and drilling down into complex issues? Serving as a distribution channel for their favorite political leader’s narratives is advocacy.  It isn’t journalism, no matter how much they pretend otherwise. Awarding Pulitzer-prizes for stories that turned out to be fake news, and then not withdrawing them in the face of exculpatory evidence has only further demeaned the credibility of the industry. A recent poll showed that less than 15% of Americans believe what the media is telling them. A good place to start to fix the problem is the FCC “Fairness Doctrine,” the same doctrine that VP Cheney maneuvered to eliminate twenty years ago.  

Every election season, the left rolls out its favorite pet issues, hoping that your sympathy for those issues will win your vote. They’ve been doing this for 50 years:  Roe v. Wade, universal health care, guns, the environment, etc. The last cycle added Covid and mask mandates to the mix. What all these issues have in common, no matter how you feel about them, is that they will never be resolved. The left hopes you won’t notice. Fleecing the public coffers to fund projects that can never produce a result has been going on forever. It has created industries that lobby (read that bribe) politicians to carry their water. This corruption goes on because everyone feels helpless to do anything about it. 

I do remain an eternal optimist. Our country will get through this. I see strong evidence of the inevitable corrective swing back to center already happening. The Republicans will probably win the house in November by a significant margin. Perhaps they will win the senate too. I fantasize that the House will elect Trump speaker. That’s where he really belongs. He could do good work for the nation there. Governor DeSantis of Florida could be our next Ronald Reagan. So could Governor Kristi Noam of South Dakota. Maybe they’ll run together. There are others to like too. Haley, Pompeo, etc. They all share the same core values with most Americans:  love of country, duty to serve, freedom of speech, self-reliance, equal opportunity in all things, a good education for our children, rational policies, national security, accountability, and competency.  Why would you vote for anyone who didn’t share these values? Which of these values are you prepared to have your children live without?