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The War at Home

When School Districts, Airlines and Presidents Need a Commanding, No-Nonsense Person to Get the Job Done, They Call In the Generals

December 02, 1996|MARC FISHER | THE WASHINGTON POST

Your school system is in free fall, its leaders universally derided. You've got weapons in the classrooms, more dropouts than you can count, test scores that look like temperatures on the tundra.

Solution: Get a general.

The District of Columbia, which last month summoned retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. to duty as CEO of its sorry school system, is not the first city to call in the cavalry to fix the schools. Before turning to Becton, the D.C. financial control board studied Seattle, which last year hired as its superintendent Becton's friend John Stanford, a retired general with not a minute's experience in running a school system.

All around the country, institutions in trouble are turning to generals to get the job done. The Library of Congress suffers racial strife, difficult labor relations and a wobbly public image; it calls in Gen. Don Scott to be deputy librarian. The National Air and Space Museum takes a huge hit from the controversy over allegations that its planned Enola Gay exhibition rewrote American history; the Smithsonian hires retired Vice Adm. Donald Engen, a World War II dive-bomber pilot and veteran of three wars, to repair the damage.

ValuJet and USAir are rocked by plane crashes. Immediately, they bring in Air Force generals as safety czars to boost public confidence. In New Jersey, state investigators accuse a county utilities authority of massive waste and corruption. The answer: a 35-year Army veteran.

Even President Clinton has realized the symbolic power of the retired general. When Clinton's war on drugs fell under attack, he got himself a four-star general, Barry McCaffrey, to be national drug policy director. In his first debate with Bob Dole this fall, Clinton responded to Republican claims that he is weak on drug abuse by trumpeting his appointment of a combat veteran with two Silver Stars for heroism, a man who was "the most heavily decorated soldier in uniform when he retired."

Two decades after Vietnam, the military's image has pivoted cleanly. The sad specter of a drug-ridden corps of high school dropouts has been replaced by a reputation so golden that--at least so far--it has withstood the tests of occasional sex scandals and profligate spending.

In a society casting about for leadership and direction, the military stands as an easy answer.

A retired general is spit and polish. Order and discipline. Expectations and results.

"Retired general." Two words with such Taoist balance. At once at ease and in charge. Calm yet powerful. Benign yet can-do.

"We're proven, we know how to take orders, we know how to do more with less," says the Library of Congress' Scott. "Society wants more order and more structure."

Listen to Becton in his inaugural address to the control board: "Remember, children first. Failure is not an option." Moving between professions known for their impenetrable jargon, the general uses rhetoric that is refreshingly frank and imperative: "We will fix it."

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Becton says his military background has no particular symbolic meaning: "My background is no different from anyone else's. I went to high school, I worked."

But the people who hired him knew what they wanted.

"Obviously he exercises very, very strong authority and order and discipline," says control board member Joyce Ladner. "One lady came up to me in the supermarket and said, 'Please get the general, because I was in the Army and we had order and discipline and that's definitely what we need in the school system.' "

"The Army is authoritarian," says R. Calvin Lockridge, the controversial former D.C. school board member who left the board in disgrace. "When institutions get into trouble, the first thing they do is look for authority, a Mr. Fix-It. And when something is as chaotic as the public schools, they bring in a general."

"Making the trains run on time is not to be pooh-poohed," says Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who studies the military. "In a world of crumbling institutions, the military stands out for its cohesion."

Turning the reins of power over to a general is an American tradition, especially in tough times, especially in the aftershock of war. The nation turned to Gens. Washington, Grant and Eisenhower for stability, leadership and inspiration, with varying degrees of success.

Yet the longing for occasional injections of military discipline continues even in a country governed by the myth of rugged individualism. After the Persian Gulf War, Gen. Colin Powell became one of the nation's most admired men and was courted as a presidential and vice presidential candidate. And Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf parlayed his field command of U.S. forces in the gulf into a quiver of corporate directorships, honorary chairmanships and even an appearance on a Leonard Slatkin CD, reading Copland's majestic "Lincoln Portrait."

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The fantasy of the military man--or woman--rising over the horizon to come save the day is wonderfully American, wonderfully Hollywood.

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