It has been said, and repeated in articles and books, that Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of The Washington Post, managed his newsroom through dynamic tension. The idea here is that two people are left to fight it out for the same job.
I never saw that anything was gained by this in my time at The Post. But what I did see was Ben’s habit of hiring the smartest, most ambitious people he could find. It wasn’t tension between two, but among many.
The problem was that there weren’t enough great jobs to accommodate the best and the brightest coming across the threshold. People would be hired who thought they were going to rise to the top in weeks and report their way to great glory.
But the people who had the great jobs, like David Broder, the chief political reporter, and diplomatic correspondent Carroll Kilpatrick were not about to surrender their turf to the latest aspirant.
In the end, Bradlee’s innocent desire to hire the best had a toxic effect. Rather than creating a newspaper of happy savants, it made for one with the worst internal politics of any paper outside of The New York Times, where, for different reasons, the same degree of infighting was part of the culture.
On the face of it, newspaper management may not have much in common with political administration. But I aver that it does, or at least it will for Barack Obama.
In two of the areas where much is expected of the president-elect, foreign policy and energy, I detect Bradlee’s management style. In foreign policy, Obama has set up an incipient tension on a grand scale. There is the imperious Hillary Clinton, who has many virtues, one of which is not diplomacy. Those who know her say that if she is crossed or undercut, the secretary of state-designate will strike with the stealth, speed and ferocity of a crocodile taking a wildebeest.
Besides Clinton, three others on team-Obama will want to make their mark on foreign policy: Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser James Jones and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Similarly energy policy, and the implementation of the president’s policy, has all the ingredients for covert warfare.
Obama has chosen to make Carol Browner the energy czarina, complete with an appointment at the office of the president and all the authority that implies. Ostensibly, her role is to coordinate the energy activities of the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
However ideology, rather than coordination, may be the order of the day.
The energy secretary nominee, Steven Chu, is a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist who quoted William Faulkner in his acceptance speech. Browner and Lisa Jackson, who has been tapped to head the Environmental Protection Administration, are not energy experts. Instead, they are the products of the environmental movement and service in the Clinton-Gore administration with its suspicion of big energy; its pathological hesitation about nuclear; and its belief that somewhere out there is the soft path which, if taken, leads on to reduced oil imports, cleaner skies and millions of jobs.
Chu will have his hands full just keeping the Department of Energy functioning. It is poorly constructed, designed around fuels without an integrating purpose. Also in 2000, Congress established the National Nuclear Security Administration as a separately organized agency within the DOE. Consuming $20 billion of the department’s $25 billion budget, it is a managerial problem. For the money, the NNSA refreshes the nation’s weapons stockpile; designs and computer-tests new weapons; manages the legacy nuclear wastes from earlier weapons work; conducts monitoring and surveillance of weapons programs, both legal and illegal, around the world. Prima facie, this is more than Browner, a former EPA administrator, may be ready for.
Finally, the new team has implicitly been charged with creating millions of new jobs. Alas, that may take more than the first Obama administration to implement. Notoriously, energy has always been capital-intensive and labor-light. It is not a big employer. Only in the extraction of coal was it once a big employer, but mechanization has reduced the need for men with picks and shovels.
It is a good guess that Browner will tell Chu what is expected, and he will tell her what is possible. And there’s the rub.