- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Wit and true wisdom are in shorter supply than ever in the think tanks of Washington. Yet both can be found in abundance in this delightful book, which looks at the pitfalls facing an incoming president.

Stephen Hess, whose White House staff experience dates back to the Eisenhower administration, provides an abundance of guidance in this deceptively slim work, which President-elect Barack Obama would be well-served to heed.

The senior fellow emeritus in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and distinguished professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University explains why university professors are surprisingly good at running huge government departments and why business executives who have stayed in the same company for most of their careers are not.

He fearlessly points out that most senators make lousy administrators. (Mr. Obama, having run one of the most massive, successful and flawless campaign organizations in recent times may be an exception to this rule precisely because he has not been in the Senate long enough to be lulled into its easygoing, pompous and ineffectual ways.)

Incoming administrations value loyalty - however glib and superficial - over frankness, Mr. Hess notes. Ever since the time of Andrew Jackson, new presidents have disdained the insider expertise of government professionals. (The canny Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, did not.)

Mr. Hess writes that the reservoir of experience, ability, expertise and even wisdom within the permanent bureaucracy of government are extremely high - the ranting of radio shock jocks to the contrary.

Despite his close friendship with the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who steered him into the Nixon administration, and his role in virtually every presidential transition since John F. Kennedy’s, Mr. Hess doesn’t fall victim to boring and banal reflections that often bog down the work of accomplished Washington insiders.

Mr. Hess is refreshingly free of the rigid snobberies of insecure intellectuals - something I have encountered far more often in the think-tank world all across the ideological spectrum than in academia. His advice on where the president should look to find good speechwriters, for example, is iconoclastic and eclectic: Pick the good ones from anywhere. Robert Sherwood, who served Franklin D. Roosevelt very well, was an outstanding playwright who won four Pulitzer Prizes. Samuel I. Rosenman, another FDR stalwart, had been a judge.

Mr. Hess’ book is also fun and reader-friendly: It is packed with illustrations, charts, jokes, anecdotes, gossip and even cartoons. It should be essential reading in public affairs and political science classes in high school and college across the nation.

Many taboo subjects necessary for survival and prosperity in Washington are covered fully and frankly. I especially liked the section “When to Grovel.”

On Page 122, Mr. Hess even includes a checklist for the president-elect to guide him through essential phases of the administration-forming process in real time. I doubt any recent administration ever came up with anything better.

Mr. Hess gives pocket assessments of the inaugural addresses of modern presidents along with distilled accounts of the reactions those speeches provoked and whether the addresses helped or hindered the new leaders in the following months.

The forests of Canada are decimated every four years to make mountains of boring, pretentious books avidly seeking to influence the policies of incoming administrations. Mr. Hess gives the impression he does not care whether his book is read and heeded or not. But his distilled worldly wit and wisdom deserve to be as timeless as Ecclesiastes - and they’re a lot more fun to read.

• Martin Sieff is defense industry editor for United Press International.

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