Friday, December 07, 2012

Liveblogging Caro on Moses: The Bully Pulpit

Still galumphing away on Robert A. Caro's big biography of Robert Moses, here's something new to me, though not, I suppose, to many others.  That is: I'm just noticing the obvious parallels between Moses and Caro's other great subject, Lyndon Johnson.  This is easy, isn't it: lust for power, check; titanic energy, check; endless capacity for controlling even the smallest detail.

And each,  in so many ways, the boss from hell.  A self-absorbed bully and slave-driver, relentless in squeezing the last drop of effort out of the best of men (and women).  

But--you will say of either--his charges loved him.  He brought out the best in them and he moved them to heights they wouldn't have achieved without him.  To some extent, yes (perhaps especially Moses).  But there is a flip side here, a trait held in common by all the underlings, perhaps indispensable for such a life.  And that is a knack for subservience.  Plenty of people, whatever the potential rewards, simply wouldn't let themselves be sucked into the vortex of such egomania.

Which set me to wondering: how many others are there of this same style; how many more potential subjects for Caro biographies?  Oddly enough, I can't think of that many.   Others political leaders have their vices--power corrupts, and all that.  There are surely other instances of petulant bullying.  But the laser-like focus on driving the underlings until they drop: oddly, it doesn't seem all that common.  Kennedy? Clinton?   Carter?   HW? Not really.  Young W may have called his most indispensable fixer "turd blossom," but that's more in the nature of locker-room swagger.  Roosevelt and Reagan both seem to have ruled through a kind of steely indifference glossed over as charm.  

I know what you're thinking: Nixon, or perhaps Kissinger/Nixon.   Again, I don't think the model fits.  Nixon may have been an awful human being but his modus vivendi seems to have been to hunker down in the pillbox with a small circle of yes-men.  And Kissinger--I don't know, perhaps he was a stern taskmaster, but ironically, his principal vice appears to have been courtiership, i.e., a kind of bullying in reverse.


jedharris said...

Steve Jobs, and probably Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Possibly Thomas Watson (IBM). I suspect Edwin Land (Polaroid) but don't know. I don't know so much about other historical "captains of industry". This pattern was *not* the case for e.g. the leaders of Intel or DEC, so it by no means universal in highly successful innovative companies.

I never really thought about this until you brought it up, but it seems that this management style occupies a very interesting niche between "lone genius" (sometimes with a few hench-people) and "organization man". The styles don't necessarily fall out as one would imagine. Gordon Moore, for example, was 100% an engineer -- technocratic bias -- but also 100% an organization man -- not driving people as you describe, but rather optimizing the way they worked together.

Buce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Buce said...

Odd, killed my own comment. But what I said--thanks. I had meant to say I was talking public, not private, because I knew more about it. But Jobs obviously; I guess I know less about the others. Bios of Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, make it clear that they were all domineering autocrats in their various ways, but none quite the same systematic bleeder of staff talent--perhaps because management/organizational styles have changed.

Another model is to farm out the dirty work--Ike to Beetle Smith, later Sherm Adams (as they might say in a Victorian novel, "my man of business will attend to that"). Perhaps we can read Moses as doing the dirty work for Al Smith.

Buce said...

[Something screwed up in comments this morning.--Anway--] Two other models: Asquith presiding over a cabinet containing Churchill, Lloyd George, etc., and just letting 'er rip. Atlee, presiding (if you can call it that) over an instance of extraordinary teamwork.

I suppose I might have included Maggie Thatcher although perhaps she did not sweat them so much as merely shower them with contempt.

Ken Houghton said...

All right, I'll go first. Uh, I think you have the Kissinger/Nixon dynamic backwards.

Evidence the First: Kissinger played for both sides in 1968, shifting toward Governor Checkers only after (1) Wallace entered the race and (2) it became clear that HHH was not going to get support from LBJ in the places where that would make a difference.

Kissinger, unlike Tim Geithner, is not innumerate.