Shield, Cocoon and Mission

Or, Whither the GOP, the NRA…and us

One thing of enduring interest to me has always been how information flows through an organization, or perhaps more concisely, how so much important information can be kept out of it.

The Shield

For over two years I was Chief of Criminal Defense in a major Army Command. The commanding general (CG) wore three stars and is in all the history books. His Chief of Staff was a brigadier who kept a rotating list of young officers to play racquetball with, and, during a break in one of those sessions, in polite conversation, he told me his principal function was to act as “a shield” for the CG, mainly to keep all his division chiefs, G1,G2, G3, etc, from overloading the CG with extraneous information. The staff were all careerists (colonels), some battling for their own star, very territorial, so most everything they told the CG was laced with self-interest. The Chief of Staff said it was his job to filter information coming to the General (to keep self-interest and in-fighting to a minimum…my words, his inference).

All that made sense to me, having been in state government before I signed on with the Army. At 28 I’d already seen a lot of office politics in high(er) government places and knew the torturous path the truth sometimes had to take in order to get to the decision-makers. It became a cause of mine. A lot of people pooh-pooh military staff procedures, but I prefer them over the corporate staffing I knew in the ’80s, and the school solutions that created them, the one clear reason being the enduring sense of mission you find among military leaders versus their civilian counterparts, as I will describe, below.

The Cocoon

We ask this question all the time: How come the president, any president, never seems to know what’s happening out here? Or what people out here think? Or what’s important to us? That’s part of the original job description, isn’t it?

For him, everything is filtered through briefings, polls and that chief of staff. We all know this, and considering the size of the job, always cut him some slack. It’s designed that way. He exists in a pre-fabricated cocoon, his access to information highly controlled, the product that comes before his eyes filtered to the nth degree. “We”, “Us”, the people’s viewpoint, is rarely a part of those briefings, even when we know stuff, big stuff, important stuff, he often isn’t being told. We see this everyday on RedState, things that outrage us, and we all wonder, “Does the president even know this?” (We also ask this question of Michael Steele and Chris Cox, Mitch, Boehner, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) If he doesn’t know this part of his job instinctively, or get reminders through some back door, he’ll never know.

Now this cocoon also applies to the political class in general, both parties, members of Congress, political elites in New York, LA, and inside the beltway. But also their families, their wives and children. And that’s the problem. The Beltway is a cocoon, and almost every city in America has aversion of it. At one time, only the very rich lived in such protected, rarefied air. For congressmen, especially, who routinely visit their home districts, and talk with “their man” back there daily, you wonder how they can possibly stay in that cocoon everywhere they go. The real world has to rub off somewhere, you’d think. You know, prime time television; kicking back with CSI or NCIS. Or the local news and weather in Poughkeepsie. A phone call from Auntie Em? A pastrami on rye and a brew at Mo’s? The same applies to mayors.

So, was this cocoon surgically attached even before they were elected? If so when? When did this “new world” consume them, and when did the old world they grew up in become either irrelevant or just a nostalgic memory like an old Beach Boys tune?…for most politicians lived in this cocoon years before they attained high office. I’m trying to think of the last time Mitt Romney ever breathed plebeian air.

Most importantly, when did this insulation from reality start to feel normal or even good? Or even a little bit sexy? I listen to Glenn Beck complain about the security he must have accompany him (and which he genuinely needs) but most celebrities secretly like it in the same way Elton John or Mick Jagger loves never going anyplace that a limo can’t take them. Or every time the belly barks and just shouting out “Room Service” and someone shows up with a delicious-looking food delivery system? ( A little double-nintendo for rocker groupies.) But I can recall a time when stars hated this phony fanfare and glitz, and yearned for the ability to walk down a public street, or drive 4-door Datsun to the grocery store. Can anyone recall  when Paul Newman once jumped into the back seat of a VW Beetle parked outside a theater and asked the kids to take him to his hotel…and then bummed a Budweiser along the way? Who do we admire more, Newman or Elton John and his 3-car entourage?

How come nobody in Washington knows anything about America anymore? That’s the question. How come corporate officers know nothing about their employees anymore? How come AARP knows nothing about old people anymore? How come the GOP doesn’t know nutin’ about nutin’, we’re asking Mikey Steele once again today? (Actually, we’ve asked this question for a few years now.) And, now, dark days of dark days, how come the NRA suddenly could give a rat’s rear end about which end of a gun the Constitution comes out of?

At this point I have to suggest William Whyte’s 1956 Organization Man, for which you can find dozens of summaries in Google, but which I only point out here as to how easy it is to “shut out”, literally shut out, things you see in front of your eyes every day and shut down memories and instructive lessons learned over a lifetime in order to fit into the “new order” (my words). It is a cultural and psychological event of some magnitude, which Whyte noticed way back in the dark ages before most of you were born, when the real “Mad Men” were doing their real thing up and down Madison Avenue. (This is why I recommend old black and white films, by the way. A lot to learn there.)

But imagine being driven in a cab through the Black Hole of Calcutta and being so intent on your cell phone you never notice the carts carrying off the dead just outside your window. Then imagine being there in a cab in 1947, before cell phones, and still not noticing? During the Raj, Indians called that the “thousand yard stare” by the feringhee sahibs and memsahibs. That’s the organization man, one part narcissistic, one part indifferent, and two parts focused on things far, far away, such as careers, peers, the organization, and maybe copping a feel with that hot little secretary in Accounting. If you read up on the Borgias you can see how easy it is for one’s entire world to turn inward to a game having nothing to do with the real job (mission) except as a reflection of ones skill and his earned right to be in the game at all. He/she may have all the book knowledge in the world, facts and figures at his fingertips, the technical parts of the job a snap. But inside the organization, everything is Florentine, where the game, and the career, is based on how well one can maneuver within a small confined space. The Borgias used a full 50% more of their brains in Renaissance Italy then we do now because they didn’t have the tools we have now, but neither did the Mad Men of the 50s. To us, their daily lives would be like three-dimensional chess, where every other member of the organization is a piece you can play (move) but at the same time you are being moved by them, only you have to keep it all in your head. No Blackberry. No apps. You juggle three-four games at a time all the time, from trying to get the O’Connor account, to screwing that guy who has the corner office with a view, to that hot little number in Accounting. The winners here aren’t decided by the smartest, or heaven forbid, the most dedicated to the mission (they are almost always pawns, who actually keep the ship afloat), but rather who can act fastest on their feet. At some point the organization itself runs on inertia alone and can do modestly well for a considerable time with only those pawns, even if the front office were all killed in an avalanche in St Moritz. (I once told my CEO that. He was not amused.) Bill Clinton was perhaps the best of the best in this renaissance game of 3-D chess, only sadly, as a footnote, this is the most we can give, even as a backhanded compliment, to such wasted talent.

Even in our simpler world, I know this type and so do you; I’ve seen them in Moscow, Bangkok, Hong Kong, as businessmen, gaze fixed straight ahead, looking neither to the left or right, and you’ve seen them as tourists in Aspen, Cancun or just about any port the cruise ship calls on. On the rarest of times does the world accidentally reach up and bite their shut-down minds, say, in Jamaica, maybe as they’re making that last walk along the souvenir stalls, when, if the trade winds are right, they catch a whiff of the open sewers from the shanty part of Kingston a few hundred yards away and then grab the nose, and say “Oohh, what’s that?” and do a quick 180 (360 for Maxine Waters), and head back for the dock. Even then, they never make the connection.

This used to be the ugly American of the 1960s, only now it is the ugly UN director everywhere. And it’s not just the ugly face but THE face of government and corporate business these days, and now, the blue pinstripe side of the Second Amendment over in Fairfax. So, it’s incumbent on us to understand both our enemies and our (sic) friends if they are inside the Beltway cocoon and in this button-down state of mind.

First we need to understand the manner by which they have subverted their mission, for this still doesn’t answer how we as citizens can address it? How do we get their attention? You know, Micheal Steele? Or Chris Cox?…before they sell us down the river (A little slave lingo there), for that is exactly what is in the offing. We have to “do unto others before the muthers do it unto you” (Roger Miller, 1967), even though I think they haven’t a clue as to what it is they’re doing. That’s the great tragedy of the man-turned-inward, the organization man, a danger to himself and all that he touches. He’s clueless until it’s too late. That he meant well is no solace.

The Mission

We also know some people prefer this insulation, for cultural, psychological as well as professional reasons. It all depends on how they view (redefine) their mission. For those who want deniability or all the perks of the job and only a minimum of the responsibilities (Clinton) the cocoon system reinforces it. For those who want to pursue a mission totally opposite from the one they took an oath to (Obama or the current Democrat leadership), the cocoon can reinforce it. For those who want to hide from their enemies, real or imagined, (Nixon) the system reinforces it. The cocoon can be a tool.

According to Whyte, It really is easy and natural to not only redefine, but totally bury the original mission inside the organization. For example, the First Law of bureaucracy is to subordinate the mission that created it in the first place, into a secondary position behind its own preservation and perpetuation. This is true even in an office of 10. The impulse is always there, no matter how small the organization. Many years ago, aware of this (at least superficially), corporations installed ombudsmen to study and read, then report to management about what was on the minds of its own employees. Later they came up with the Mission Statement, which proved they had learned La Rochefoucauld, that “hypocrisy is the price that vice pays to virtue.”

Just imagine the irony today if the RNC hired someone to read RedState, Malkin, Drudge and some others then provide a daily briefing to Mikey & Co about the People’s, or conservative’s viewpoint. Imagine the awkward, even clumsy way that spokesman would be made to feel as he daily strode into the conference room to brief the assembled powers of the party about such tertiary matters as what’s on the mind of the People. Imagine the sniggers. Yet, that is what they need. Badly.

The same has been true of corporate America for nearly a generation, once the hands-on bosses were replaced by the techno-bureaucratic bosses. The corporate front office moved inside that cocoon, getting weekly reports…usually numbers…about the factories, rather than actually visiting them. No time, all those meeting, don’t you see? (Read: too dirty.) A very important human element was lost, and in due course, besides Wall Street, the banks, Chevy, we also lost Russia in 1992 because no one in that generation of American corporate business was interested in finding the Russians who could profit them Instead the waited for the Russians to find us…only the Russians didn’t know how. By 2001 Russia was lost a second time (and the last I’m afraid, in Pascal’s sense of “lost”), when Bush gazed into Putin’s soul and saw the most sincere, honest man since Richelieu.

It’s how individuals manage the flow of information that comes into their own eyes and ears that determines exactly how broadly they see their own mission, for by allowing someone else to filter it, or cut it off, they also limit their own notion of mission. The best leaders simply find ways to seek out new information that allows them to fill in the holes of information provided them through normal channels. They have back doors. Most don’t anymore. They don’t even look for them. And that often separates great from good. Or good from average. It also, as we saw in Russia, separates success from failure.

What I do know is that some men and women, leaders, not managers, “know” (I could write a page on how they “know” this, mostly from upbringing) the proper place of “The Mission” in their overall mission as leader, and the natural inadequacies of that cocoon to provide them with the proper intelligence to pursue that mission. That understanding used to be second nature in America, even politics. Lincoln reached over a stack of more senior generals to pick Grant. He understood the mission at hand. Likewise, FDR (actually Marshall) reached over several senior generals to pick Ike for a job that he was peculiarly fit to do. Hitler on the other hand surrounded himself with sycophants and kowtowing careerists. So it would be wrong simply to say that mission drives performance, for the German General Staff was just as mission oriented as Marshall was, only they had subordinated their own missions for the greater mission. Happens all the time.

Back to my original opener, In America at least, I’ve found military leaders to be routinely head-and- shoulders above the civilian world in the way they see mission, in part, no doubt, because of its criticality. But Keitel, Jodl and Goering also taught us, for they proved even in life-and-death war the organization man will assume (roll the dice) that someone else is attending to the major details of victory. They were all condemned to hang at Nuremberg.

Remember that 3-star I mentioned? He had a habit of asking his command sergeant major (CSGM) to hang around for a few minutes after they had discussed a personnel issue with his staff. From time to time he also played chess with me, to pull information about morale issues. We were two among his back doors. In 1975 he found himself having to sign off in what normally is a routine personnel action against a Spec4 who was being discharged as an undesirable for having raped an elderly Japanese woman, convicted in a Japanese Court, then given a suspended sentence. (That’s right, suspended sentence for rape. A great story here, and I was on the inside, so know it well.) When the General reviewed the soldier’s file he noted that all the forwarding officers had recommended the soldier be retained and not discharged (short answer, they knew the kid was framed) so he called all the principal staff officers to his office to find out why. The CSGM was there also. The JAG, a colonel, from Harvard, his first field assignment, on the job maybe six months, was quick to point out the soldier had been given bad legal advice from his military lawyer. The General asked who this JAG was and when the colonel named the captain, the CSGM, Mick Meehan, with three bird colonels glaring down his neck (two of them my friends), spoke up, “Oh, no, General, that can’t be, Captain X is the soldiers’ lawyer.” On those words alone the General stopped the meeting and launched an investigation a few days later. Six months later that colonel was relieved of duty, and sent packing, his dreams of a star finished.

Lesson: The world moves better when you have leaders who first seek all the intel rather than waiting for it to come to them. And they always keep a back door open in their cocoon.

I never knew that CSGM well, but I knew all the E-8’s who answered to him. Those few words he said to a 3-star general, with a whole bunch of colonels staring down his neck, cured a terrible injustice, actually two, for not only was that soldier exonerated, but one miserable popinjay got his comeuppance in the grandest of military fashion. (Good officers need great NCO’s to become great, and the best officers learn that as a lieutenant. But I digress.)

The Cure

Now I have always argued that once you know there is a cancer in your midst, especially a natural borne one, it should be easy to insert safeguards. But that is really only true in the private sector, and as we’ve seen in recent years, more often small business, where even the untrained boss can tell when he’s losing money or business due to  an inefficient front office. Besides, in the private sector, nature takes its course, and kills off the sicker businesses, their vacancy replaced by a stronger, more virile company…at least for awhile. All very Darwinian.

But as we know in Big Business, which has learned much from Big Government, and why we see so many unlikely/unholy alliances there now, the laws of natural death due to inefficiency and waste can be repealed. Government does this by simply raising taxes (enhancing revenues) or printing new money, so as to keep the waste (the cancer) intact and active. So the “wise-guy” corporation feels it can do the same simply by marrying, in a shotgun sort of a way, the promiscuous and polygamous Government. As the Krupps, the von Schachts, Bayer, et al discovered in the 1930’s, this doesn’t work out so too well, in that once hitched to the government, the original mission can be buried altogether and replaced with a totally new one, or, if the government has a mean streak, the company itself buried. You can run but you can’t hide from Darwin’s little laws of life and death.

There is only one elixir or life, an attention to mission. Actually Aristotle, and through him, Aquinas first noted this, and they called it the Good End. And while I have always believed that even the most cumbersome of bureaucracies can be reformed, and a sense of mission renewed, I know this can only last at best, two bureaucratic generations, approximately 30 years. They will always revert to nature, as that cancer seed will always be there, and it will eventually infect the upper levels or management or leadership. Man is barbaric by nature. He is civilized by conditioning, mostly through religion (morality) but also in understanding mutual reciprocity. that there is no “I” in team. But all men have buttons, in every culture, and in each those buttons are different, that can cause them to revert to barbarism. America has always had a few positive buttons denied the others, and it is because of those exceptional American buttons Lincoln found his Grant, Marshall his Eisenhower, and my general his Mick Meehan. No Prussian has such a button. No Marxist has one. It’s a law.

This is why, finding seeds in individuals (Ronald Reagan, some say Bush…I’m not sure… also Sarah Palin…again, too soon, the jury’s still out) seems to be what every American is looking for in a leader. Anyone can fake the words, and while those all seem to be Democrats, I think a lot of Republicans are trying to pull the wool over our eyes as well. The proof’s in the pudding.

The mission of the US Constitution is us. The mission of the Rule of Law is us. The mission of the free market is us. NOT THEM.

So, being sort of cut out of the loop, what does “us” do about it? Don’t look for the answer in CSGM Meehan, he just like you and me, is an enlisted guy. But the answer clearly goes through him, for you see, he (we) are the enduring essence of America, not the popinjays we elect or allow to supervise our affairs until they get too big for their own breeches. From time to time, especially now that our reason and common sense is under assault, we have to smack them down.

From a Fourth of July sermon I highly recommend, “The American Prophets” by Ron Dart, John Adams wrote in a letter to Jefferson asking whether men, once they had lost sight of the responsibilities and the thrill of liberty (my words), could ever regain it. He was rather pessimistic, but I am not.

When Adams wrote this he lived in an ordered English society, with no idea of the sort of people who would get off boats for the next 150 years to populate this country and move it westward. In his wildest imaginings he could not dream of uncouth, illiterate Texas Rangers hanging horse thieves 300 miles from the nearest courthouse, without a trial…while still moving the cause of liberty…and civilization..forward, not backwards. Frontier justice. I think he would have recoiled at the idea, and my admiration of the man is such, I’m glad he wasn’t around to see it. It might have jaded him somewhat.

But I am glad I am around to reflect on it. For as we have discussed here in previous editions, those hard- bitten men were imbued with the mission of liberty and the rule of law;’ the ugly, dirty side of it. We still haven’t lost that. Mick Meehan proved it.

I can’t recall if Whyte had a cure for the disease he called the “organization man” as he defined it. Probably not, since most sociologists don’t, as that would require them to get involved in actually fixing the problems they identify. But again, the American exceptional society has always had that fix, and it runs through our citizenry, not our elites. If you can’t cure them, then every two generations or so, we just take them all out and shoot ’em…which in itself sounds remarkably similar to what Jefferson said about the Tree of Liberty being refreshed with the blood of patriots.

I’m just being figurative, of course, but you run out the logic yourself. Common sense (and Whyte) says they can’t be reformed so you just get rid of them and start over. It’s not the shortage of leaders I worry about. It’s the shortage or Mick Meehans.