30 July 2007

Rhymes with Betray Us

The pun – Petraeus and “betray us” – has crossed my mind many times since President Bush first elevated him to the status of the next-in-a-series general in charge of losing the Iraq war for us. In fairness, we lost this war long before Petraeus took over, but the play on the general’s name was and remains apt. Reading Frank Rich’s insightful and disturbing column in yesterday’s New York Times was just a reminder of how ass-over-elbows is both our current government generally, and their management of the war specifically.

But if I thought my pun was clever, I was only one of many:

  • Under the banner of “One Pissed Off Veteran,” the joke was made here...

  • A bunch of gung-ho Bush-and-war types, calling themselves “Red State Rascals,” picked up the pun in a different context: it seems to be the concluding line from an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily: “The choice for Democrats is Petraeus or betray us.” (Who will tell IBD that the GOP lost the war, not the Democrats? The Democrats have certainly helped, no doubt about that. But Bush, Cheney, and their Republican minions [formerly known as members of Congress] lost this war all by themselves.)

  • There’s even a YouTube video called “Petraeus to Betray Us” to make the point about the expectations the general has had placed on his shoulders – and the likelihood that he, too, will bow to politics (President Bush’s politics) rather than reality in Iraq.

There is more, of course; a Google search will turn up plenty, some of it supporting Petraeus and much of it excoriating both the general and the civilian administration that launched, and lost, the Iraq war.

One almost feels sorry for General Petraeus: an American victory does not seem possible, and yet he is reporting to a president for whom anything other than a consist verbal expression of success – even in the face of utterly failed actions – is considered nearly treasonous. In the end, it seems that General Petraeus will be likely to betray someone, no matter which direction things go.

26 July 2007

Age & Duty

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

One of my strongest impressions of the early years of the Clinton administration was of the youthfulness of many of the people working in it. At the time, I was finishing college and preparing to move to DC myself, and talk of the “kids” in the White House (as some of my elders would pejoratively call them) was all over town. It was a thrilling and invigorating moment – by god, these people aren’t much older than me; we’re in charge now! – and at the same time a frightening one. As much as I believed in myself, my friends, and our understanding of the world at that age, when it all came right down to it I would never have said “Yes, my generation is ready to run things.” (Many Clintonites were not, in fact, as young as all that – but the young staff got a lot of attention early on.)

I started having some flashbacks to all this a few months ago, right around the time that former White House aide Monica Goodling testified before Congress about the alleged (but seemingly obvious) influence of politics in the Department of Justice’s selected firings of nine U.S. Attorneys. At 33, Goodling seemed so, well, young: young to be testifying before Congress, and young to have held the influential position she did. Then along came Sara Taylor, another now-former White House aide, who is all of 32 years old. She also seemed rather young for all this – not too young to be working in politics, but too young to be a decision-maker in the White House, high enough up that she would need to be called before Congress or have “executive privilege” asserted on her behalf.

It’s not jealousy on my part; the age difference between us isn’t that large, and I have my own successes to feel good about. Moreover, the idea that there is always a direct, causal relationship between anyone’s age and their job performance or overall competence is absurd. Indeed, one of the most incompetent government officials of recent memory is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for whom all those years of business- and political-world management experience and high-level strategic thinking were either totally worthless or lead him in completely the wrong direction, or both.

Nonetheless, it is hard to overlook the idea that age – and the experience that goes with it – matter in terms of the judgments people make, and the frames of reference people use to back up those decisions. In the case of the Bush administration, these two “aides” were both Bush devotees, with a long history (despite their relatively short working lives) and connection to Mr. Bush and his campaigns. In other words, much of their experience and frames of reference in the working world were tied to exactly the same “decider” on whom they depended not just for their jobs but for their very careers.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this issue, or drawn a connection between age and duty. Cenk Uygur, of The Huffington Post, wrote about this a couple of weeks ago: “It’s not that the Bush administration couldn’t find experienced people – it’s that they didn’t want to. An experienced lawyer might object when you tell her to use political considerations to hire and fire attorneys at the Justice Department. An experienced lawyer can spot a violation of the Hatch Act or the FISA law or the War Crimes Act. An inexperienced lawyer who is thrilled to have such a great job at such a young age will do as they are told.”

Uygur’s perspective is tough, but he’s not wrong. On top of which, there seems to have been some sense that, age notwithstanding, these people’s creative ideas for how to approach a (potentially) highly-charged political situation were no less valid despite their inexperience.


Around the same time that I started mulling over the terrible impact on our nation of this political devotion and naïveté, I saw two interesting articles in the Wall Street Journal about the state of the younger workforce these days: Emily Meehan’s Act One column, titled “New Grads Are Impatient for Promotions,” and Jeff Zaslow’s Moving On column, titled “Blame It on Mr. Rogers: Why Young Adults Feel So Entitled.” [Note: Online subscriptions may be required to read both.]

Over the last five or six years, I have written a lot about these issues myself, especially in terms of the more-than-occasional challenges of recruiting and hiring good people. (Most recently, this article from last year – “Jobbing It – Stories” – addresses another aspect of the issue, and has links to some of my other writings on the topic from 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002.) What both of these recent WSJ columns confront is a funny set of expectations that connects directly back to the inexperienced actions of these White House aides. In particular, it’s a sense of entitlement and expectation that suggests that paying one’s dues, in just about any form, is over-rated.

Meehan, for instance, refers to and quotes one young man thusly: “He and a former fraternity brother started a blog, employeeevolution.com, about people in their 20s who want more rewarding responsibilities at work. In a recent post he offered advice for peers in his shoes: ‘Keep your resume in the flow and continue to network; screw face time – if you've put in your eight hours and accomplished nothing, don't continue to waste your precious time.’” Clearly, I cannot address the details of the job experience that this guy suffered through; it does, indeed, sound stultifying, and as poor a reflection on his unnamed Fortune 500 company employer as on his own attitude.

Nonetheless, those eight hours should not have been a waste, not just because any employee should be given more work and shouldn’t be left to sit, bored, for all that time – but because workers should look for opportunities to learn about their jobs, even beyond just asking their boss for more work. For example, almost every industry (and especially those that involve Fortune 500 companies) have newsletters and publications specifically addressing news and trends within that field. In my experience, many younger employees make no effort to learn or engage with issues with which they might otherwise be unfamiliar, or to read about the goings-on and happenings elsewhere in an industry that could inform their work and their ideas. (This is particularly true since the internet made the in-office reading of out-of-office material so very easy: reading is up, but job-related reading does not seem to be.) Nor do people extend the networking opportunities to internal ones: to seek out and talk to colleagues who can spend a little time discussing the business, the field, and related issues; inter-office relationships are critical to long-term success in a job. Instead, much as this young man suggests, many workers “screw face time,” and start job-hunting all over again.

Tapping into the creativity of younger employees is important. I’ll leave that as a clear, direct statement on its own because it’s true: young people often bring a clarity of ideas and philosophy that can be quite refreshing. When I was just starting out in the working world, I benefited greatly from employers who spent time nurturing me and giving me good opportunities – but I also had to make opportunities of my own, and apply my creativity to more than just the sometimes-narrow tasks I had been assigned. Networking with colleagues – people with whom I wasn’t necessarily working directly, but from whom I could still learn – was key, doing so opened up work opportunities I would not otherwise have had, and taught me about aspects of my field I might not otherwise have thought about.

More to the point: tapping into youthful creativity and energy only has value if those young employees are able to learn from the process, too. Sometimes, it isn’t just about implementing a creative idea, but about adapting it to special circumstances and knowing what the limits are (legal or otherwise). That seems to be what was missing in the White House: that broader knowledge of the world that can help us all stop and consider an idea not just on its apparent merits or inherent creativity, but from other, outside perspectives that might reveal a “good” idea to be something else entirely.

23 July 2007

Birds Do It, Bees Do It

I never set out to run a stable of blogs. (No, seriously, I didn't.)

But sometimes, to paraphrase a famous line, good ideas just poop [yes, poop] into my head. So, the latest project is unveiled: The Poop As I See It.

You can share your poopie stories by e-mailing thepoopasiseeit_at_gmail-dot-com....

16 July 2007


Try this.

Coming soon, a look at age before beauty. No, wait; I mean, age affecting duty. Whatever, you'll see.

11 July 2007

Iraqalypse Now

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Over the weekend, I watched a very old TV show indeed – the second of a two-part set of Magnum P.I. episodes (having an infant can do wonders for one’s television habits). The plot was thin, borrowing heavily from the Manchurian Candidate concept of a brainwashed American soldier, but the focus on and connection to the Vietnam war was striking. I couldn’t help thinking about the potential, long-term cultural impact of the Iraq war by comparison.

A couple million American soldiers passed through Vietnam during our fight there, and the (American) death toll was over 50,000. The troops were supplied largely by the continuation of the military draft, which conscripted soldiers from across the social spectrum, even if many of the American elite (like both our president and vice president) found ways to avoid service. The result of these numbers, and of the draft, was that it imposed the war on Americans as more than just a long-running, terrible series of television news reports and governmental missteps.

That civic imposition, combined with our failure in the war, pushed Vietnam’s impact over to pop culture. Vietnam played a central role in Magnum P.I., where the main character and several of his friends served and became tightly bound together. From Apocalypse Now to Platoon and Full Metal Jacket – and television shows like M*A*S*H (ostensibly about the Korean War but hard not to interpret as relating to Vietnam), The A Team, and even The Wonder Years – the presence of the Vietnam war in American culture is indicative of its impact on our nation and our psyche. Nor is the role of the war limited to a focus on its failures; while that was certainly a topic, the war was often simply the historical reference point for a series of character relationships, of bonds formed during a conflict in which so many citizen-soldiers served.

With the Iraq war, the situation is rather different. Many fewer than 2 million troops have served there, and our soldiers come from the standing army and our large core of reservists – which limits the impact on Americans, because no one outside the existing military is called upon to fight. (And each time the army misses its recruiting targets, we are reminded of this all over again.) Moreover, as terrible as the war has been, only three thousand or so American soldiers have been killed. This is a fact for which we should be immensely grateful! Still, it has an odd and ironic downside: the flow of coffins home has been steady but slow by comparison to Vietnam, further enabling Bush and Cheney to sidestep their failures and cover up the death toll.

I have no doubt that the soldiers who serve in Iraq have their stories, surely the equals of Vietnam-era tales about being attacked by guerrillas who looked like civilians, or of the incompetence of the American military commanders in the face of a mutable, dedicated enemy. Right now, however, the biggest stories about the Iraq war look like political ones: the tortured logic and twisted evidence Bush and Cheney used to drag the country into war, the scare mongering about terrorism that this administration has used to keep us in the war, and their use of the war as a pretext for shearing away precious American liberties (like freedom from warrantless wiretapping or respect for habeas corpus rights).

Where the Vietnam war brought us (even in failure) a sense of Americans tested, pushed to their limits, and bonded together, the Iraq war has thus far showed us only Americans powerless against our own immutable and immovable administration, a stark divide between the political classes who keep the president’s war going – because their own livelihoods are also bound together with it – and the rest of the American people, whose support for the war is nearly non-existent. How that translates into popular culture remains to be seen, but it will take significant effort, to say nothing of an undeserved sense of nostalgia, to evolve all this into something the American people will find entertaining.