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decision making style

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John Kerry and George W. Bush demonstrate starkly different decision making and leadership styles. While Kerry's history suggests he can frequently worry an issue to death, close observers of the president say he draws on just a few advisers to debate the issue and then generally comes to a quick and sometimes gut instinct decision. Commenting on the president's managerial style are longtime friend Clay Johnson, Texas Democratic legislator Paul Sadler, reporter Wayne Slater, political adviser Joe Allbaugh, and former Coordinator for Counterterrorism Richard Clarke. These excerpts are drawn from their FRONTLINE interviews.


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clay johnson
Longtime friend of the president who has served in both his Texas and Washington administrations.

…He's … not one to engage people in long philosophical discussions about key issues. He likes people -- his staff, his key advisers -- to study the options, the different alternatives that he could consider; come to him frame the issues; present or make a recommendation. Then he responds to that recommendation.

He's not one to review a 200- or 300-page document on some key issue. That's not the best use of the president's time. The purpose of any White House is to maximize the value of the president's time and voice. The best use of the president's time, an hour or two, is not to digest large amounts of information about a key issue. That's what the staff's role is. So the president is not one to call up people in the middle of the night and ruminate about different options that exist.

He is a very disciplined person, and believes that if you apply discipline to the review of alternative ways of solving any of the many different issues that are brought before his desk, a lot of issues can be addressed in a very succinct, straightforward fashion. …

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Paul Sadler
Texas Democrat legislator who worked with then-Governor Bush on reforming the state's education system.

… what he does is he surrounds himself with people that can give him advice. And I think he develops relationships with individuals. And I think the relationship that he and I developed of trust was such that he felt comfortable trusting my judgment. And my view has always been that that managerial style of decision making is fine, so long as you have different viewpoints in the room.

But if you don't have different viewpoints in the room, then you're likely to make singular analysis and singular judgments, and you can be wrong. I have seen him hear different viewpoints and come down on what I obviously believe is the right decision. But if there's only viewpoint in the room, that's always concerned me. …


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wayne slater
Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

….When you gather people around him, he did exactly as governor what he does as president. He surrounds himself with a very small group of people he trusts, whose instincts he regards well, whose ideas he'll consider. And rather than read big long memos, he wants one page.

Rather than hear 15 minutes of recommendations, he wants to hear a minute. And he wants to hear from a series of people, "What do you think? What do we do about this issue? And he distills from those ideas what his decision is. And he makes a decision and moves on.

I don't know of any case that I can remember where he's regretted the decision that he's made. He recognizes decisions were wrong, but he says, "You have to make the decision based on what you think at the time."

Key point in George Bush is that he doesn't study things in a meticulous way, the Clinton way or the way Jimmy Carter did, with the sort of in-detail discussions and understanding of a particular problem. He pays people to understand problems, and he trusts people who are around him. They're supposed to fully vet and understand and come to a point of view and give him their best advice. From the series of people, he considers all of the recommendations, makes a decision accordingly and then moves on.

Being a student and meticulously going over papers has gotten a bad name -- from Carter to Clinton. They're using [that] against Kerry. There is a [perceived] weakness as to whether or not Bush gathers enough diverse opinion.

Yes, I think one of the myths about George Bush is that he's stupid. He's not. But he is not curious; that's not a myth. That's absolutely true. He wants to know about as much as he needs to know to make a decision and then move on. He knows fundamentally what he believes in terms of business, in terms of free enterprise, in terms of the role of government. He wants to hear people not just on that side, but other sides. But he makes decisions that are consistent with that.

He has never been a student in the way that I think people who dip themselves deeply into the material are students. He's always, I think, been happy with that. ...


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Joe Allbaugh
Top aide to Governor George Bush and his 2000 presidential campaign director.

…He is the best one-minute manager I've ever been associated with. He is a fantastic delegator. And people interpret that as someone who doesn't want to be involved in the details. I promise you he is a detail-oriented person. But when you have people, staff persons come in one after another trying to wade into thick booklets on particular issues, he wouldn't want to review the booklet. He'd say, "Set that aside and let me hear from you what the subject matter is. How do you feel?"

And one of the great things that he also did was instill incredible staff loyalty because he gave everyone an opportunity to say their piece. And when you have a buy-in to the process, regardless of the subject matter like that, you have people who are willing to do anything for you. And the governor was very good with his time that he shared with staff. …

….There's an old John Anderson song, and it's entitled "You Either Stand For Something Or You'll Fall For Anything". And that describes the then- governor and now president. He's not bashful about his positions. He doesn't regret decisions that he makes. He wants people to know exactly what he stands for, exactly where he's headed, exactly where he's coming from so, there'll be no guessing….

Quite frankly, I think he's a borderline "policy wonk" that most people give him the short shrift on. Meeting after meeting after meeting just drilling people who know a subject matter better than he does. And, he's not afraid to ask the questions, any question, where he doesn't know. He's not afraid to have smarter people than himself around him. He wants smart people around him because that way he'll have the best information to make the decisions that he has to make. He was like that as a candidate, he was like that as a governor, and he's like that as a president. There's been no change whatsoever. The same model works for this guy that worked at the very beginning. …


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Richard Clarke
Former coordinator for counterterrorism in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

…What was your sense of the president's manner and acuity in these meetings that you did have with him?

I thought initially, "This guy is not the dumb rich kid that he's been portrayed," because he was asking good questions. Then I realized in a couple of these meetings that I thought he was trying to prove to us, his staff, that he was not the dumb rich kid, by proving that he could ask good questions. … Clearly, there's a bright mind there, and it can be very focused. But it goes very quickly to the bottom line. You know, he himself says, "I don't do nuance." He's not interested in a lot of discussion about details. He wants to know, "Where are we going, what's the bottom line, what's your recommendation, OK, let's go on."

That's fine on some issues. But on other issues, you really got to understand the nuance. You have to spend a lot of time in the detailed discussion, and reaching out for a lot of experts. He doesn't reach out, typically, for a lot of experts. He has a very narrow, regulated, highly regimented set of channels to get advice.

One of the first things we were told was, "Don't write a lot of briefing papers. Don't make the briefing papers very long, because this president is not a reader. He likes oral briefings, and he likes them from the national security adviser, Chief of Staff of the White House Andy Card, [and] the vice president. He's not into big meetings, and he's not into big briefing books."

What reaction does that sort of engender within the White House staff, as to the boss?

I think, for the handful of us who had worked in the Clinton White House, we knew things were going to be very different, and we knew there was a lot of improvement that could be made. Having meetings that began on time were something that we really looked forward to after eight years in the Clinton White House, where meetings would be a half hour late, an hour late. …

So there were there were definite improvements that were encouraging. But then to be told, "You know, he only really likes to get his information from a handful of people, and he likes to get it orally --" That disturbed us, because we thought, "There's so much information. Some of this is subtle and nuanced. He really needs to be reading a lot of briefing books." To be told, "Well, he's not a reader, and he doesn't like to get briefing books," was a little disturbing. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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