If you’ve paid any attention at all to the several GOP debates, you know Newt Gingrich won all of them. By a mile. In fact, he ran circles around every one else.
He had more facts at his finger tips, and brought them out as easily as if he’d pulled out a gum drop from his pocket. And he had more self-assurance and conviction in his voice as he delivered those facts. He even beat Ron Paul for being a smug know-it-all…and therein might lie a hitch.
If you don’t know it, Newt and Herman Cain have agreed to a Lincoln-Douglas type debate on November 5th in the Woodlands (Texas). That’s right, head-to-head, toe-to-toe combat by two very animated and vocal conservatives.
My advice to Herman is not to even try to “out-fact” Newt. It can’t be done. Don’t ever get into a game of Political Trivia Pursuit with Newt Gingrich.
Instead, if I were advising Herman Cain, which I’m not, I’d try to get him to imagine Newt as one of those people gathered around the table at a management meeting at Godfather’s.
Most every company has one, as I suspect Godfathers did, and he is the guy who, while every department head is expert in his own specialty, he is expert in none, yet knows them all. He knows every part of the company, and how all the pieces fit, from the herbs and spices, both quality and costs, to the oven technology, transportation costs, to unit costs, labor costs, and overhead costs, and can recite them off the top of his head while the others are still fumbling through papers (or these days Blackberries) trying to find the end-of-week performance figures.
Every CEO wants one of these. Every company needs one. And the best of them will end up next in line…
…if they also have some other qualities. Which means they also come with a large caveat if they don’t.
Let me explain.
My own corporate world was textiles. And we had an executive VP, No 4 in the company, who fit this bill to a tee. (He was also my mentor.) He could build a plant in his sleep, from walking the property, to sitting down with design engineers and working out cost per sq ft, lighting, work process from loading dock to shipping dock. He also knew every technology in producing garments, not just the machinery, mind you, but their respective efficiencies and expected productivity; from the yarn mills to the knitting and weaving rooms, to the bleach and dye house, to packing and shipping and transportation.
His greatest value to the company was to just sit in on meetings, because he knew everything. But he had been passed over for the CEO’s job a few years earlier by a man ten years his junior from another division of the company. Since the Vice-Chairman and President were sinecures, one the son-in-law of the founder, the other the son of the previous CEO, he was the only one who actually knew the company inside and out. Yet he didn’t get the job.
You can see how such a valued asset can become a liability, since out of bitterness he can become a source of dissension rather than an anchor of solidarity for the new boss. More than a few good companies have been sunk because of these unseen dissensions, for no company can march well that does not march together.
In all fairness to my old mentor, while bitter about being passed over, I never once heard him say a contrary word about his new boss in the nine years I worked with him, and I was about as inner circle as one could get. He was a team player to a fault.
But he highlights the predicament of the guy who really is a master of the business in which he is engaged, when it becomes clear that his knowledge isn’t enough.
I’ve often spoken of “Ben Franklin in the boardroom” and how good it is for every company to have one; the man who has wisdom, knowledge and history to impart but is not ambitious to be in charge.
My former boss accepted this new role in the company with grace and style and helped push it into billion dollar status before he retired. Above all he was an honorable and loyal man.
Which takes us to why he never got the promotion in the first place. Of the second tier of management there, I was probably the only one who ever knew.
You see, my boss had “sweaty palms,” a name we gave people who hated confrontation and had difficulty in making the tough decisions when they needed to be made. In a pinch he might fold. He lacked a major ingredient, an intangible, in being able not just to be able to assess the tough problems, even solve them in the abstract, but to be able to act, sometimes in the most uncomfortable of situations.
This serves as a stark reminder that the smartest and quickest guy in the room isn’t necessarily the man who can take all that knowledge and 1) forge a plan of action from which everyone can get in line with, and then 2) actually execute it, especially if it might involve brinksmanship, hard decision-making (e.g., firing people) and generally looking into the belly of the Beast without flinching.
Mitt Romney has been all over the place; he’s been for everything we hate before he was against everything we hate, (to paraphrase another Massachusetts icon of the paradox), so it is understandable for people not to trust that he will carry through on his promises to the CONSERVATIVE MAJORITY once elected.
In like manner, it is equally appropriate for conservatives to wonder if Newt, even as he is the most articulate and ingenious of candidates in speaking to the “art” of game-changing, can actually perform the actual high-wire act of game changing…without a net.
The Contract with America was a stroke of genius, and in truth, the Republicans held the House from 1995-2007, six congressional cycles on the strength of it. But Newt was there only four of those twelve years. And while I think the ethics violation was a bum rap, the fact is that he had lost the confidence of his own House leadership…for not being a leader.
The Gingrich House never lived up to its billing, most of the Contract, such as term limits, left laying in the laps of members to deal with as they felt proper…individually.
And in his one great run-in with Clinton, when Clinton closed down the government on the budget deal, in the end Newt blinked, and to this day, graduates of that class are still scared s***less of any face-off with the administration in budget matters, witness the horrible debt ceiling deal worked out by Gingrich alum and current Speaker, John Boehner earlier this year.
Sweaty palms are contagious.
With me, that is the Gingrich legacy writ large, and it is not a legacy we can afford to revisit in the coming years with far, far more at stake.
While we clearly need a game-changer to be elected in 2012, and Newt Gingrich speaks of “game-changing” strategies in the strongest of tones, I personally have my doubts that he can actually execute any of them if met with what we know will be twice the public and media blowback than he met during the ’95-’96 government shutdown.
But of the only two game changers I see out there right now, I think either President Cain or President Perry will be very blessed to have Newt Gingrich sitting in the venerable Ben Franklin chair among the councils of power in the new administration.