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decision making style

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One of the most dramatic contrasts between John Kerry and President Bush is their management style and the way in which they arrive at a decision. In excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews, former aide Jonathan Winer, former colleague Bill Codinha, New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, former adviser Dan Payne, and longtime campaign staffer Thomas Vallely talk about John Kerry's decision making style.

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johnathan winer
Former counsel to Senator Kerry.

…John's a light manager. What I mean by that is, you meet with him at the front end of any assignment of whatever it is you're doing, and talking through what the issues are, talk through what the initiative might be, what the agenda might be. He says, "Yes, try it out, see what's there." Then you're basically free to do your own work on it, and then to come back to him when he needs to pay attention.

He is not a micro-manager. He won't do it. Not important to him. Whole point is, if he hired you, he has to trust you enough to believe you're going to be able to do it when he's not paying attention. Micro-managers are basically saying they don't trust their staff. He's not a micro-manager.

He gets engaged at the front end, when there has to be a particular strategic decision, and then at the very end, when he has to, himself, engage. He'll get involved in every detail so he knows the inside out, like a trial lawyer preparing for trial, which is what he did before he was lieutenant governor. That's the style. That's consistent over the entire 20 years that I've worked with him and known him.

His Socratic method?

Well, Socratic method is part of what you have to do at the front end, and particularly if you want him to go into action himself, which is he'll hit you with every single argument that he could possibly hit you with, that the other side, whoever it might be, might hit him with. So he is thoroughly prepared in the position he's going to take.

Part of that is, he'll let you believe for a period of time that he's not sure where he's going to wind up. Maybe he is, and maybe he isn't. But part of the process is a suspension of the intention to go a particular direction, because you've already intended the arguments are going to get corrupted. If he's already said, "Well, that's the place I want to go, just give me arguments, I need to go there," he's not going to get the benefit of the authentic, toughest back-and-forth you could get.

So he goes to the other side, the opposite position that you want. "Why should I do this?" He's got the following problems with it. "I might be justifiably attacked for this. Why shouldn't we do that instead?" Those kinds of arguments-- It's environmental issue or energy issue or a foreign policy issue or a tax issue, and you have to battle him. He won't just do it with one staffer. You could sort of deal with that one-on-one. He does it with a whole group, and encourages everybody else to participate in whichever angle of the discussion they want to be.

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see a chronology of kerry's life

Then when it's done -- which may be because he's ready to go get some physical exercise, he's a guy who needs physical exercise -- he won't necessarily say, "Now I know where I'm going. I'm going to do this." At that point, it's his. It's not yours, it's his. He owns it. You don't own it. He's the senator. He's lieutenant governor. He's the president. It's his action. He's going to decide and take it from there, and he'll tell you when he thinks it's the right time to tell you. Maybe, as when he's the senator, he'll tell you when he's on the floor, and just does it.

Sometimes it's an unnerving process. But he comes out the right place. …

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bill codhina
Former colleague in the Middlesex County District Attorney's office.

…I think that what I've seen happen with Senator Kerry, is that when he has time, he likes to hear all the arguments. He'll drive someone like me crazy. Because I may see five options. I may see four options. And I'm perfectly willing to discuss those four or five options. John sees 25 and wants to talk about each one of them and wants to examine each one of them, wants to balance them out. And particularly in a time where there's no rush, that's what he does.

…On the other hand, when the chips are down, the description other people get is John sees clearly a way through. I think it's part of the fact that he's very smart. And he's very nuanced. And he likes to hear all the arguments. Because he wants to make sure he's right. He doesn't want to do something if there were other options to look at-- that he somehow hasn't examined. So, he really wants to get all the information.

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philip gourevitch
New Yorker writer who has covered Kerry in the 2004 campaign.

…What do you count as his accomplishments as a senator?

Kerry has an avid appetite for consuming large amounts of information -- collecting to him, gathering in the maximum number of conflicting, contrasting opinions, in a sense sort of circumscribing and circumnavigating an issue and making decisions.

But to say that, and this is crucial, is not to say that he's incapable of using his gut, at least to judge by some of the crucial moments in his Vietnam biography which are so important. There's a person who absolutely, when everything was at stake and split-second timing was crucial, made very bold decisions, that, according to the men who were in the boat with him, kept them from being killed and allowed him to get out of very, very tight traps.

That's sort of the classic Kerry story, over and over, repeated in one scenario after another throughout his political career, is somebody who can almost appear to be on battery-saver or hibernation mode through long periods, doesn't seem to know how to pin himself down, much less to be pinned down by somebody else.

And yet, as the moment of decision arises, or particularly as the moment of great pressure, whether it's in a campaign, whether it's in a decisive negotiation, he seems to gain steam from the kind of deadline pressure. And ultimately, he makes his own decision. That in any case is how the people closest to him consistently describe it in reference to enough different situations that one ends up with that as a kind of collective picture.

And one believes it?

It seems credible. Of course, the risks or downsides in this approach is that there are these periods of tremendous vagueness, or apparent vagueness, when he has decided that he doesn't actually have to have a conclusion yet. And so he appears actually to be inconclusive. …

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dan payne
Adviser on several past Kerry campaigns.

…if you're in a meeting with John, discussing some position that he's gonna take, some views that he might want to explore, publicly, he will argue with you endlessly about it. To a point where you know, you'll get very frustrated and say, "Well, you know, let's just do it. Let's stop arguing about 'what if this,' and 'what if that.' Let's just take a stand here, and move on."

And I think it's a function of John wanting to sort of be responsible, intellectually. He is a reader. He is a thinker. He is a person who cares about the subtleties of things. It doesn't always make him a good candidate-- that he wants to think through something, as opposed to just give you an off-the-top-of-his-head response, or the response that he thinks you'd want to hear, that he'll take you through his thought process. …

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john vallely
Veteran of several Kerry campaigns.

…The rock that is always thrown his way is that he's a waffler, that he can't make up his mind.

Well, he's not a waffler. But he sees well more than one side.

People don't like that.

Yeah, well it's a very good thing to have. It's a very important gift. I don't like it. Okay? You know, if you are dealing with John on issues, he's very smart. And if you say John, "I don't agree with what you said on trade agreements," he comes completely equipped to destroy your argument.

And he wants to hear what you have to say, but he's completely trying out the other version that he heard from somebody else. He learns through arguing. That's his system of knowledge generation, and of his own opinion generation. It's not "I'm gonna read Bob Rubin's book on the economy." Well, he's not gonna read Bob Rubin's book. He's gonna fight with Bob Rubin … and when they're finished fighting, he's gonna have a stronger view of what he does. That's his system of learning. It's not particularly helpful, but that's the way he asks. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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