Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dropping Trow

Monday newspapers are like Sunday papers, but smaller. Much of the front page contended for Sunday publication but didn't make the cut, or needed another day to percolate. Match today's lead story with the publication:

Pinochet obit
Immigration-raid feature
Private investigator feature
High-rise murder folo

Stephen Metcalf in Slate marks the death of New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow by recalling his 1980 article Within the Context of No Context. I'd never heard of this essay, and maybe that's the point. Trow saw pop culture as a subversive hustle against adult legitimacy. Seems to me anyone who has seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon knows that.

The New Yorker navel-gazing tradition certainly has taken a beating since then, and newspapers are less consciously serious. The Tribune worked up the immigration synocdote; the Sun-Times, death at a patent-law office, RedEye the private-eye procedural. Only Spanish-language Hoy led with the death of Pinochet (I say pin-oh-SHAY, but it's it's pee-no-CHET to those unfamiliar with his legacy of state-sponsored torture.

Not only is Pinochet's death the old-school news story in the bunch, but the emerging cult of the grifter that Trow foretold would have marveled at the Chilean dictator's grand crimes. That Pinochet drew so little interest in death says more about our collective lack of curiosity about life.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Rumsfeld's adult supervision

I'm not sure when "Take charge" becomes "Take responsibility." But I think it's when things are going badly.

I started preparing a presentation on asserting yourself, on what to do when things go badly, as a Donald Rumsfeld memo surfaced over the weekend. Rumsfeld advised the president on Iraq, where things are indeed going badly. What better real-world example of asserting yourself than bearing bad news to your boss?

The news of the memo was that before last month's election Rumsfeld was talking about pulling out troops. The tone of the memo was that Iraq needed adult supervision. Rumsfeld described a troop withdrawal as "taking our hand off the bicycle seat."

Iraqis, Rumsfeld said, "have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country." We take charge, the Iraqis must take responsibility. It's as if Iraq is a child learning to lace her shoes. Maybe that's the right metaphor.

Children appreciate when parents take charge. They feel comfortable with limits. They're relieved that some things in life they don't have to worry about. Leadership isn't all that different. Everyone on a productive team knows their roles. If things are going badly, the best course is to address the situation immediately and head-on.

By that yardstick Rumsfeld sent his memo way too late. So, was this a textbook example of assertive behavior? The literature suggests four steps toward addressing your concerns and asking for help:

State the problem. With experience in the corporate world, Rumsfeld got right to the point. The memo begins: “U.S. forces have adjusted, over time, from major combat operations to counterterrorism, to counterinsurgency, to dealing with death squads and sectarian violence.”

Tell your feelings. "Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough," Rumsfeld wrote. That barely touches on what must have been on Rumsfeld's mind: He'll find it hard to rally the Pentagon if every option for victory is not on the table.

Specify a solution. The memo put 15 options on the table. Some of them were clearly tough-love measures, such as no more reconstruction assistance where there is violence. "Stop rewarding bad behavior," Rumsfeld wrote. Others were face-saving, as in redefining victory. "Go minimalist," he said. The memo doesn't give much of a sense what course the Secretary of Defense wanted the president to take.

Describe the consequences. Again, Rumsfeld came up short of presenting the dangers of staying the course. He merely listed the current path as one of a half-dozen "less attractive options." The others included moving more troops to Baghdad and increasing U.S. forces "substantially."

So, this memo came somewhat short of telling truth to power. An effective request would be delivered calmly and repeatedly until the message gets across. What happened with this memo is that Rumsfeld resigned two days later. Coincidence? You be the judge.