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Ladies and Gentlemen, the CEO of the United States

What if We Let the Business of America Actually Run America? Well, Recruiting Would be Touch.

November 03, 1996|Michael Walker

Wanted: Chief executive officer for superpower country. Must be self-starter with excellent interpersonal skills. Previous experience necessary in conducting thermonuclear brinkmanship, resolving intractable ethnic conflicts, living under the constant threat of assassination and unrelenting media scrutiny. Benefits include exclusive use of landmark house and weekend retreat, radiation-hardened 747 transport, 24-hour security detail and command of 1 million air, land and sea troops.


You would think your garden-variety ambitious chief executive officer would actively covet the ultimate CEO slot: the White House-dwelling, press conference-evading, Secret Service-surrounded, one-and-only genuine commander in chief. In short, the president. Of the United States.

You want power? How about an Air Force warrant officer following two steps behind with codes that, detente and disarmament notwithstanding, you can still use to incinerate the planet.

Want to show some dictator you mean business? Make a couple of calls and--whammo!--60 cruise missiles, at $1 million a pop, are raining down on his air-defense infrastructure.

You want perks? Well, there's Air Force One, and it's a beauty: room for you and 70 of your crew, dinner when you want it, highball glasses embossed with the GREAT SEAL OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Plus, anybody gets weird with you or your family, you've got muscle trained to inflict major hurt or even catch a bullet. Not to mention high school bands that show up wherever you land and play your song when you ankle down the portable stairs.

You want big bucks? All right, so the package is a little lean in that regard: $200,000 straight up--no bonus, no stock, no parachute. But when you figure practically everything short of your wardrobe and personal grocery tab is picked up by the taxpayers--your plane and cars and security and the lot, at a cost that's been estimated to top $150 million annually--it's not such a bad deal. As Richard M. Nixon noted famously during his abbreviated stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: "We're roughing it pretty nicely."

So you'd think the real fire-breathing CEOs in America--Disney/Cap Cities' Michael D. Eisner, Sunbeam's Al Dunlop, American Airlines' Robert L. Crandall or GE's John F. (Jack) Welch Jr.--would kill for that kind of prestige and clout.

Think again.

"Jack Welch wouldn't even dream of it," laughs Pendelton James, a New York-based executive search consultant who recruited the bulk of the president's kitchen Cabinet during the Reagan administration. "It just wouldn't work. You can take the most capable CEO and he wouldn't last three days in the executive branch. It's a whole different mind-set."

Is it ever. The main problem, say James and other executive headhunters, is management style. Where a president holds consensus-building sacred and governs largely by committee, the private-sector CEO expects to rule by fiat. "If he wants to close the plant in Kentucky, he closes it," James says. "The president can't close down anything. Ronald Reagan tried to shut down the Department of Energy. You saw what happened there."

Ross Perot, by the way, is thought to confirm these theories, not disprove them. "Perot is the only businessman on the scene, and he verges on the eccentric," says Bob Dingman, a Westlake Village-based search consultant. "His short fuse is demonstrable. His inability to compromise would wipe him out in 30 days."

Nor are CEOs interested in the having their laundry, dirty or otherwise, aired in the name of the republic. Nobody from the private sector has forgotten what happened to Gary Hart. Or what may happen to Bill and Hillary Clinton. And as much as a semi-celebrity CEO like Bill Gates already lives in a fishbowl, says Dingman, "the fishbowl of public office is so extreme, hardly anybody wants it. We have made public office so onerous that most men of real ability and integrity have no interest. The price is too high, the rewards too low."

Adds Gary Kaplan, a Pasadena search executive: "The flip side is that, fundamentally, [the presidency] is the ultimate position of power in the world. Bill Clinton is largely attracted by that; so is Bob Dole. What else can you achieve in life when you have a personality that screams out for attention? CEOs are just the opposite: A low profile is the best profile. That kind of psychological makeup is not going to be attracted to political power."

Indeed, even the most megalomaniacal CEO would have little use for power that comes shrink-wrapped in red tape, with strings attached. Says Frederick Wackerly, a Chicago-based search executive: "Sure, it's the pluperfect power job, but it's also a job where you have to suffer the potentially largest pool of fools in the world. If a CEO gets ticked off at somebody, he can fire them. But you can't fire a senator." Wackerly sputters just contemplating the thought. "You can't downsize Congress."

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