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Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

The Middle Doesn’t Hold

howard-deanLots of Democrats like Howard Dean the former Vermont governor because he can almost always be counted on to be a full-throated partisan. Cable news loves the one-time Democratic presidential candidate because he’s always ready to launch an attack the other side. Nothing subtle or nuanced about Dean. In his world the Democrats – make that the most liberal Democrats – are always right and the Republicans are a bunch of knuckle-dragging throwbacks to the 19th Century. He has nearly as little use for a Democrat who wanders off the party reservation.

Lots of Republicans, particularly the Tea Party wing of the party, love the Club for Growth and its mouthpiece former Rep. Chris Chocola because the Club and the former Congressman can always be counted on to attack any Republican who dares to veer, even ever so slightly, from the group’s unyielding anti-tax, anti-government agenda. The Club for Growth has established itself as the enforcer of GOP orthodoxy on taxes and the scope of government. As a Republican you cross this crowd with full knowledge that they know how to buy television attack ads and have money to burn.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: consider Exhibits A and B in the sad and troubling case of who murdered moderation in American politics. The loud and often unreasonable voices of guys like Dean and Chocola  increasingly dominate political discussion and they are largely getting away with the political murder of moderation because we’re letting them. If you enjoy dysfunction in Washington, D.C. keep rewarding the Deans and Chocolas. Their political oxygen depends on squeezing the last breath out of anyone who even looks like a moderate.

Dean, of course, has his own political action committee and says he’s “open,” despite the legendary “scream from Iowa” heard round the world in 2004, to another run for president in 2016. He’ll undoubtedly run as a divider and not a uniter. Dean made news in Oregon this week, which he no doubt wanted to do, for launching a Twitter attack on a prominent Democratic state senator who had the gall to buck her party on a couple of high profile votes during the recently adjourned Oregon legislative session. Sen. Betsy Johnson did vote with Oregon Democrats 90% of the time during the recent legislative session, but in Dean’s “no room for moderates” world the senator, because she crossed her party on a couple of issues, needs to be challenged and replaced.

Chocola was out this week with an equally bizarre attack on Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson. The Club for Growth announced it had endorsed a novice Republican from Idaho Falls, Bryan Smith, who is challenging the widely-respected eight-term chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that just happens to be vital to Idaho. Club for Growth calls Simpson “one of the biggest liberals in the Republican Party,” which is nonsense bordering on political malpractice as anyone who really knows the Congressman can attest. Simpson is, by any realistic measure, a very conservative Republican. He’s gone down the line with the NRA, opposed Obamacare and has battled the EPA over budgets and regulation, among other things. What he is not is a knuckle-dragger always in lock step with the far right.

Challenger Smith, who the Club apparently recruited for a Simpson primary challenge by trolling the Internet, was endorsed because he opposed Idaho Falls city property tax increases and criticized the Supreme Court on its health care ruling. Quite a record. Sign him up. The guy sounds like he’ll dependably put his rock on the “no” button if, against all logic and likelihood, he should happen to make it to Congress.

Simpson, probably because he spent his formative political years in the Idaho House of Representatives, including a successful stint as Speaker, while a politically skillful and successful Democrat held the governor’s office, has never automatically assumed every person across the aisle is an opponent worthy of being savaged from Twin Falls to Twitter. Simpson actually thinks a legislator’s job is to try and make the government work. He knows his district’s economy depends on the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and that contrary to Club for Growth-like thinking maybe, just maybe, he needs from-time-to-time to be able to work with an ideological opposite  in order to keep the Department of Energy budget working for the nation and his district. We used to call that politics and it still amounts to governing.

Simpson’s real concern to Club for Growth is that he has dared to speak what every sensible person in Washington and the nation knows to be the truth about the federal budget: To secure a long-term and stable fiscal situation for the country Republicans and Democrats must come together and address spending, entitlements and – brace yourself – future revenues. In other words, Simpson has said what Simpson-Bowles have said and what Warren Buffett has said, in fact what every responsible person in the country has said about the nation’s fiscal and budget policies. In short, Mike Simpson is a conservative Republican who understands that finding common ground on major issues isn’t treason, but rather statesmanship.

Howard Dean and his like on the political left and Chris Chocola and his ilk on the right play only one political note: a high pitched squeal that can best be heard by the most partisan folks in both political parties. Such silliness has been at the heart of the near death of moderation in our politics and in Idaho in the past it has given the state such stellar Members of Congress as former Rep. Bill Sali, once championed and elected thanks to the million dollar largess of Club for Growth. Sali’s inept and embarrassing single term in Congress was highlighted by his introduction of legislation repealing the law of gravity. It’s true. You can look it up.

Come election day here’s betting that Rep. Simpson in Idaho and State Sen. Johnson in Oregon will be returned to office. Their constituents like them and know them. Both of them seem willing to defend common sense, which thankfully some voters still appreciate. Others elsewhere who practice the once celebrated political art of moderation may not fare as well and what former Sen. Al Simpson of Wyoming calls “the 100% crowd” – those who insist on unbending fidelity to their way of thinking – will have won yet another battle against realistic government.

Once upon a time pragmatic voters in places like Oregon and Idaho rewarded stubbornly independent moderates like the late, great Republican governor and senator Mark O. Hatfield and the former Democratic governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus. Hatfield built a career around charting his own course for Oregon in the Senate, often tilting against Republican presidents, and Andrus often publicly disowned the excesses of national Democrats and delighted in doing so while his Idaho constituents sent him to the Statehouse four times over three decades. Today such political heresy would spur a social media attack followed by a primary challenge.

Our national history tells us clearly that political independence and moderation really should be cause for celebration, but the political ayathollahs of the American left and right are as determined to slay the last visages of moderation as are the political absolutists who rule in Teheran.

Americans are united in condemning one group of fundamentalist crazies. We ought also unite in condemning those who fuliminate to kill moderation closer to home.


True Confessions

It’s hard to tell who gets the most out of Lance Armstrong’s true confessions – the disgraced former Tour de France champion or the one-time champ of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey. To say that the two seem to be made for each other is like saying bicycles have tires.

Just review the run-up to the already celebrated interview that hasn’t even aired yet. First, its leaked to the New York Times days ago that Armstrong is going to come clean – pardon the pun – after years of denying what everyone knows, that he is a serial (cyclical?) cheater. That scoop is followed immediately by vehement denials by unnamed sources “close to Armstrong.” The plot thickens.

Finally, Winfrey – her struggling cable channel looking about as successful as Al Gore’s did before Al Jazerra came calling – says she’ll sit down with Lance for the big interview. The content, we now learn, is so compelling that Oprah has decided it needs to be spread across two – count ’em – two nights of TV. But, before the klieg lights could cool word leaks that, yes, Lance has confessed. How could he not confess – tearfully, perhaps – sitting on the American family sofa in Oprah’s living room?

Then the interviewer, the most accomplished sports interlocutor since, say Brent Musburger – hold on – speaks on CBS This Morning! Yes, Lance did confess! Film on Thursday. Stay tuned.

Was he contrite? Well, Oprah says, I’ll leave that to the viewers. And, by the way, he really, really surprised me with the way he handled the interview. And, did I mention, its so darn good “my team” decided we needed to spread out of the goodness over two nights.

One of the best lines on all this comes from Dave Zirin writing in The Nation: “(Armstrong) is attempting to use the forgiving, New Age, healing glow of Oprah to please multiple masters with a mix of candor, charm, and puppy dog sympathy. There is a slight flaw however in this plan, which would challenge the smoothest of operators: that’s the stubborn fact that Lance Armstrong is also a person who makes Rahm Emanuel look like Tickle Me Elmo.”

In one respect, Armstrong and his lawyers are engaged in a brilliant piece of damage and mind control. In the age of Twitter, by the time the damn interview airs this week Lance’s confession will be like yesterday’s garbage – take it to the curb, we’re done with it.

This is, of course, what the cycling cheater had in mind all along. No sense confronting the people Armstrong has defamed or the real reporters he has mislead while repeatedly, vehemently and righteously putting himself above his sport and anything approaching a shred of sportsmanship, not to say honor.

In the curious world in which we live some cheaters – Pete Rose and Barry Bonds come to mind – are consigned to the dust bin where failed heroes go to sulk. Others, if they have the moxie, are given a second or third act. Lance Armstrong is using his Oprah moment in just as cold and calculating a manner as when he engaged in one of the greatest sports cheating scandals of all time.

Stay tuned, after the confession comes the phase where Lance will turn state’s evidence and in the blinding white light of rehabilitation cast himself not as the guy who forever tainted an entire sport, but as the guy who now comes to clean it up.

Oprah should know, it’s tough to be contrite when you’re calculating. Tickle Me Elmo is giggling somewhere.


Mark Hatfield

Not Likely to See His Kind Again

I’ve always thought of Mark Hatfield, the Oregon Republican who died on Sunday, as looking and acting exactly as a United States Senator should. If Hollywood were casting a role for a wise, reasoned fellow to be a U.S. Senator, Hatfield could have played the part. Heck, he did play the part for 30 years.

Most of the obits describe Mark Hatfield as “a liberal Republican,” and that is probably a fine description, as far as it goes. I think of him in the great tradition of Senate independents and independence is way more important in politics than being a Republican, a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative. Hatfield was an independent.

My old friend Joel Connelly correctly calls Hatfield one of the political “giants” of the Pacific Northwest and in his remembrance notes the range of things Hatfield touched, including appropriations, opposition to the Vietnam War, northwest salmon, nuclear disarmament and civil rights. Joel also remembers him, as I do, as one of the most dignified and best dressed guys in politics. Central casting again. Suits don’t make the man, but they don’t hurt, either.

The Oregonian’s Steve Duin remembers, as all who have been close to real politics know, that even the greatest of men walk on feet of clay. Hatfield was complex, could hold a grudge and he relished the perks of power displaying a blind eye to the propriety of accepting gifts from admirers and those whom had benefited from his power.

“Hatfield never lost an election, and rarely campaigned.” Duin writes, quoting the five-term senator as saying, “I am the Senator. I never yield that advantage by becoming a candidate.”

Hatfield was also highly religious and wise in how he applied the lessons he learned as a Baptist who – here is complex again – loved movies and learned early to enjoy dancing. An extensive interview he did in 1982 with Christianity Today introduced Hatfield this way:

“He is a Republican, but is known as a liberal in politics. He is against nuclear war, but he is not a pacifist. He supports all sorts of programs to aid the poor, but he is a diehard fiscal conservative. He is a friend of Billy Graham, and he cosponsors a resolution with Sen. Edward Kennedy. He has never been a “wheel” of the Senate’s power structure, but he has become chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. He antagonizes his Oregon constituency by voting flatly against a measure 90 percent of them badly want, and they turn right around and reelect him to office. He is a devout evangelical and an active member of Georgetown Baptist Church, but no fundamentalist or evangelical organization has him in its pocket.”

When the role is called for United States Senators from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, I’m betting that the higher power that Mark Hatfield believed in and thought deeply about will want to know how those senators came down on a few issues that define their generation – Vietnam, civil rights, nuclear weapons and treatment of the most vulnerable among us. Flaws and all, Mark Hatfield, the independent, the complex man of faith, was on the right side of history and, who knows, perhaps his God.

Either way, the Northwest has lost one of the true political giants of the 20th Century.


Leaking Oil and Credibility – Part II

obamaThe President as Crisis Manager

As a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Barack Obama has learned – let’s hope he’s learned – some lessons about leadership in a crisis.

Some of the criticism leveled at the President, such as the BP mess being “Obama’s Katrina,” seem a little off base and the media driven storyline about Obama needing to show a little temper was mostly just a made for cable controversy. Still the facts are that with the oil company clearly not acting quickly enough and ultimately not having a real plan to contain the damage from the big blow out, residents of the Gulf region and the county looked to Obama to lead. His record is, in my view, at best spotty.

Many Americans embraced the Sarah Palin “drill, baby, drill” notion during the last campaign, but at the same time those same folks are no fans of Big Oil. In a new USA Today poll, 71% of those surveyed say Obama should get tougher with BP. His speech from the Oval Office tonight seems likely to take a harder line, but that’s only part of the lesson from this crisis and its comes late in the crisis management game.

Most executives learn – sooner or later – that the most difficult thing to uncover in a crisis is quality information upon which to act. It became pretty clear pretty fast that the information deficit in the Gulf would be a major problem. While BP tried one Rube Goldberg fix after another, the President and his people came late to the realization that BP was making it up as they went. In short, there was little reliable information about the best strategy to contain the growing spill and all the ideas seemed to be coming from the less than credible company that caused the crisis in the first place. Everyone involved also seemed to lack good intelligence on what the moving oil slick would likely mean to the Gulf coast.

Obama needed better information earlier and faster. Lesson number one.

Most executives also learn – eventually – that you can’t delegate responsibility when you’re the top guy. For days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was the administration’s face on the scene. Nothing against Salazar, but we all know where the buck stops. The President and his advisers should have realized that this was his crisis to manage, and manage aggressively almost from day one.

So, lesson number two. Obama should have taken charge much sooner and more forcefully. I think, and again hindsight is easy, that he should have insisted on face-to-face meetings with BP leadership in the Gulf and in DC. Realizing that the government doesn’t possess the expertise to plug a blown out oil well a mile deep in the ocean, he should have raided major oil companies, universities, the national labs, private industry and foreign sources for the best available talent to manage the containment. I think the most profound criticism to level at the President is his failure to take the containment job away from BP early on. If he can fire the CEO of GM, he certainly has the moral authority to take over in this case. He should have.

Who is to say whether better solutions would have been forthcoming, but such a move would have clearly signalled that he was in charge and not relying on the company to address its own obvious failures.

Another lesson: when all is said and done this disaster will largely be about who pays and how much. Apparently the President is now insisting on a BP escrow account to be available to finance the clean up, pay claims, etc. Better late than never, but still very late. Money won’t fix all that will need to be fixed in the Gulf, but money will certainly do until something better comes along. Obama could have displayed real toughness by both taking control of the containment effort and forcing BP to put real money on the table a lot earlier.

Finally, I expect the President has learned another valuable, but painful lesson from this long ordeal: its hard to mobilize the government to effectively deal with a crisis that is both big and unpredictable. Katrina not withstanding, we generally have pretty effective national response to natural disasters – flood, hurricanes and the like – we struggle when the crisis is outside the usual box. Hard as it is to believe, federal agencies – state agencies for that matter – are rarely or routinely called upon to work together and coordinate an overall approach to a problem. They tend to be isolated, siloed organizations where even top managers, in say, the Transportation Department don’t know their counterparts over at Interior. It is a problem endemic to any large organization, but it can be particularly acute in government.

As John Kennedy famously said when the right hand of his government didn’t know what the left hand was doing – “there is always some dumb SOB who doesn’t get the word.”

That’s why any President – or Governor or CEO – needs to be able to reach down in the bureaucracy and crack heads in the interest of action. Action in government, where most folks practice survival skills full time and are horribly risk averse, even during a crisis, requires aggressive, demanding leadership.

A final lesson from history. When the great (and flawed) Winston Churchill took over as British Prime Minister in the dark days of 1940, he insisted, against almost unanimous advice, on reserving to himself the portfolio as Defense Minister as well as Prime Minister. Critics said it was too much for any one man, particularly one pushing 70 years of age. Winston was told he needed to delegate the day-to-day running of the war and focus instead on the big picture strategy.

But Churchill, who knew a few things about human nature and leadership, understood that he would get the credit or blame for every military success or failure regardless of whether some other figure had the official title. Churchill insisted on being in the middle of every decision, pushing, prodding, selecting personnel and reading reports and issuing demanding memos. He craved the responsibility and, while he certainly didn’t get every call correct, he inspired great confidence and dogged determination just when both were needed the most.

In a crisis – the Battle of Britain or a oil spill in the Gulf – the top guy is the responsible party. Might as well make the most of it, a lesson President Obama now seems to be embracing, finally.

Leaking Oil and Credibility

oil+spillLessons to Learn

I’ve been asked a dozen times since the BP oil spill developed in the Gulf of Mexico what I would have advised the company’s executives as they face what may prove to be – or already is – a truly catastrophic environmental disaster. Alas, BP hasn’t called, but of course I have some ideas about what they might have done differently.

The general consensus has now developed that BP has irreversibly lost the PR battle, with some now comparing the lackluster response to Exxon’s handling of the Alaska spill years ago, and has yet to win the battle to stop the oil flow.

Could it have been different? Hard to tell, but maybe.

Rule number one of a real crisis, I think, is simply that it is almost impossible for any entity – corporate, governmental, etc. – to move fast enough. The first hours in responding to a disaster, particularly such a public disaster, almost always establish the public perception of how well the crisis is being handled. The first hours and days of the Gulf spill now seem like a blur. What was happening, who was in charge, was this really bad, could it be quickly contained? Instinctively, I think, most people watched the television pictures of the burning oil rig and concluded that this would be a real mess. Meanwhile, BP and the government seemed slow out of the blocks.

So, BP – and the government – failed the first test of crisis. They couldn’t or wouldn’t move fast enough. In the early hours of a major crisis, action is always better than talk.

What might BP have done differently? I have five suggestions for what could have been done and one guess about why none of it happened.

First, how might it have changed public perception had BP’s CEO, the much-beleaguered Tony Hayward, immediately gone on television – from the Gulf – and announced that he was asking the state of Louisiana to establish an account, that the state would control, in which BP would immediately deposit – pick the number – $250 million as a down payment on the clean up? Real cash, not a promise to pay all “legitmate claims” might have made a powerful statement that the big oil company was really serious.

Additionally, BP might have announced that it was immediately suspending al offshore drilling every where in the world while it conducted, with the help of outside experts, its own assessment of safety and emergency response.

Hayward could also have humbly asked for an immediate meeting – in the Gulf – with President Obama, the Secretary of the Interior, the top Coast Guard officials, the heads of Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and the governors of the Gulf states. The purpose of the meeting: establish an immediate crisis response team, seek the best possible industry help to determine the best way to stop the leak and contain the oil and, most importantly, get all the responsible folks in the same room and on the same page.

It might have also helped BP’s credibility from the first moment had Hayward admitted what almost all the rest of us suspected – the company did not know the extent of the leak, did not fully understand the cause, didn’t have a sure fire solution to contain the oil and fully expected the worst with regard to the environmental consequences. It is remarkable what a humble admission of “we don’t know and we need help” will do to retain credibility and, frankly, buy time to get organized and really figure out what to do.

Hayward should also have become the sole face of the company’s response. He should have camped out in the Gulf, constantly meeting with local officials, business people, environmentalists and fishermen, and working the media. He should have aggressively engaged the President and his administration rather than appear to be a reluctant participant in the whole process by suggesting he wanted “his life back.”

Here is a bet as to why BP seemed to do nothing in the first days except to say it took responsibility while seeming to downplay what was really happening. I’m betting the company’s lawyers took charge of the response and the overriding objective became to contain the financial and legal liability for BP and its shareholders. I can almost hear a smart, articulate attorney telling the CEO that he must do nothing that would eventually be used to shape the inevitable legal cases that will drive BP’s liability.

Don’t get me wrong, the lawyers must be in the room when a crisis is unfolding, but in a career of helping manage various kinds of crisis – nothing admittedly this big – I have concluded that the “right thing to do” is almost immediately in conflict with what constitutes the best legal strategy for the entity responsible for the crisis. It’s hard for any CEO – even the most well intentioned – to ignore the legal advice he will receive, but doing the right thing – and fast – is almost always the better long-term option than to craft a response that is driven largely by legal considerations.

Now, as the President heads back to the Gulf today, the New York Times reports that he will demand a BP escrow account, summon the company’s executives to the White House and generally ramp up the public pressure on the company. Some might argue it’s a little late.

It is easy to second guess while looking in the rear view mirror, but I think, had BP acted faster and more decisively by putting real money on the table and seeking help and buy in from the industry and government, it could have taken charge of the unfolding narrative in the first hours and saved itself some major and long-lasting PR heartburn.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on lessons for the President in the government’s response to the spill.

Toyota’s Troubles

toyotaAnatomy of a Recall, er, Recalls

David Letterman’s monologue hit a little close to home the other night. Dave said that things had gotten so bad at Toyota that the “navigation lady was praying.”

Indeed, prayer may be the next strategy at Toyota. At least it would be a strategy.

Whatever happens next, Toyota could do well to follow the lead of the navigation lady. She is the best thing about my Toyota. The navigation lady is always polite, authoritative, just a bit assertive in that favorite aunt kind of way, and she is always well prepared, unlike the top brass at Toyota. When you take a wrong turn, against her advice, the navigation lady will gently remind you to “make a legal U-turn” and get back on track.

Better than prayer, Toyota response to its current crisis of quality requires a legal U-turn. Listen to the navigation lady.

Toyota has violated all three of what I think of as the basic rules of handling a crisis. The company’s response has been consistently ineffective, slow and lacking a message. Three strikes.

Until very recently, Toyota failed to take charge of the crisis, admit the obvious and directly and convincingly apologize.

It seems like no one in charge at the big company asked the fundamental question that should always be asked in a crisis situation – what is the right thing to do to protect the public? Answering that question honestly and then acting in the public interest is almost always the surest way to protect the corporate reputation and maintain public trust. The image of Toyota’s CEO getting ambushed at a swanky Swiss resort during the world economic summit, followed by his escape in a sleek Audi (with good brakes no doubt) only helped drive the narrative of a company lacking real leadership and unwilling to assume responsibility for serious quality shortcomings. A brand as resilient as Toyota’s could have withstood an early, frank admission of lack of performance followed by a heartfelt apology and immediate corrective action. Instead, the response was halting, ineffective and forced. Most folks are forgiving, even of corporate CEO’s, if they believe they are getting the honest story and that contrition is genuine. Toyota dented the fender on this basic requirement.

Toyota has lacked a consistent, believable message.

Communication 101 here. A consistent message from the beginning of the crisis; a message that addressed what went wrong, what needs to be done to fix it and restating the company’s commitment to safety and quality would have helped shape the public – and Letterman’s – response. Perhaps Toyota should have immediately invited third-party supervision of its processes and aggressive engaged the regulators as it engineered a technical response to the crisis. Instead, customers and the public got what looks a lot like the stonewall.

And, Toyota has made the classic mistake in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, it has failed the test of speed.

Speed kills. In the age of instant communication, speed kills bad news or a lack of speed feeds the flames of crisis. Toyota’s response has been so slow and so defensive that it helped spawn a whole series of stories, like the lead piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, that only fed the notion that Toyota’s reputation for quality is a myth. With Toyota failing to provide a quick, credible counter narrative – no recognition of the need for speed – the crisis has kept growing.

Toyota will probably pick its way through this mess, but it will take some time and the damage will last a while. I’ll keep paying close attention to the navigation lady, at least for a while, but I may need some convincing to take a chance on another Toyota. The company is paying the cost of incredibly sloppy handling of big and very public troubles. In the modern world, a precise, quick and genuine response to a crisis is the only way to avoid an even bigger crisis.

Obama’s War

afghanistanWar is the unfolding of miscalculations – Barbara Tuchman

I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”

I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.

A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will – suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.

An Idaho Perspective on Limits

Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920’s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970’s.

The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.

Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.

It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.

In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.

Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.

None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.

Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.

As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.

Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.

Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.

One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.

Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.

Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.

As I said, I hope I’m wrong.