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Henry J. Stern

Henry J. Stern

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The Politician's Dilemma

Posted: 04/18/11 05:25 PM ET

For nine years we have been writing about New York city and state government. For the most part, when one writes a column, it is to call public attention to a situation which requires correction. Relatively few columns are devoted to the praise of an individual or agency, unless such good work has been bookmarked by those with authority.

This does not mean that we view the government as doing badly on the whole. If one were to do a thorough review, one would find different scores for different agencies, just as a report card could find a student strong in some areas and deficient in others. There are some leaders in government who possess exceptional merit, and there are others whose functioning is below par. Sometimes they are propped up by deputy mayors, City Hall staff, or their own deputy and assistant commissioners, who they either appointed or inherited, or were imposed on them by actors either seeking to help or undermine the hapless commissioner.

It also happens in government, and I assume in business, that there are honest people doing good jobs, who draw the disfavor of others who covet their offices, their lands, their staffs and the public attention the good guys may or may not receive. Competitive Type A people who are appointed or elected to public office frequently desire to increase their influence and their authority, and power being to some extent a zero-sum game, their ambition can only be fully accommodated at the expense of others. Sometimes those others have given offense or provoked adverse reactions, but it is more the case that the casus belli was simply their existence. How, for example, did Luxembourg provoke Nazi Germany?

A great deal of internecine warfare in city government is conducted in secret, because it is considered poor form to publicly attack anyone in the same administration, unless the mayor has given the signal for the dogs to bite. That is a highly unlikely eventuality, since almost everyone serves at the pleasure of the mayor (a few officials, like members of the Housing Authority, serve for fixed terms).

Some mayors want everybody to be part of one big happy family, but even in such families there are conflicts between siblings. In unhappy families, children may stick together to protect themselves and each other from their parents, provided that the parents do not exacerbate matters by playing favorites. Problems of overlapping jurisdiction or territorial incursions can be brought to broader attention at the mayor's cabinet meetings.

Those meetings, which may or may not be important in forming and implementing policy, do bring people together in one room, and one can always learn from the interactions of the mayor, his principal subordinates, and the remainder of the herd, people who at any given time may be in varying states of favor with their organizational superiors.

A problem faced by any chief executive is that he is limited by the information he receives, particularly from those close to him or who have access to him during the day. If one is in conflict with another commissioner, and the other fellow is at City Hall, or is in a field in which the mayor has particular interest, one is disadvantaged in any dispute because the mayor will have heard much more of the other fellow's side of the story than he has of yours. One deputy mayor described the actions of his rivals as "pissing in the mayor's ear." The mayor may or may not realize that he is being worked over, depending in part on whether the smearer is as subtle as a serpent. Each actor presents himself as the devoted instrument of the mayor's wishes. The trouble comes when the mayor is wrong.

Some public officials are said to have enjoyed the competition between members of their staff, and may even have stoked some disputes, or at least not tried particularly hard to avoid or ameliorate them. Limiting our description to those who have passed away, we cite Franklin D. Roosevelt as a president who did not terribly mind infighting by his staff and cabinet members. One may argue that truth emerges from the prism of different views, or one can retreat to the maxim, "Too many cooks spoil the broth."

One of the weapons that is employed in office politics is leaking to the press, as well as the false allegation that others have leaked to the press. It is a clever defense for the leaker to blame the leak on his target, and if he has greater access to the mayor than his victim, he may prevail. We recall one particular case where an innocent commissioner was dismissed peremptorily because of a stale newspaper story that had, in fact, been cleared with City Hall. This was not a conspiracy directed at the commissioner, who had in fact given no offense, but he was collateral damage in City Hall's effort to control the situation.

Decent and honorable people serving in high office can be, and often are, victims of misinformation. A very important part of the skill set required is a keen sense of to what extent what you are told is likely to be true. The higher up one rises on the food chain, the less likely one is to be told the truth. Saddam Hussein is said to have shot on the spot a cabinet member who reported facts he did not want to hear. The plaintive cry, "Don't shoot the messenger," has a basis in reality. Lack of information by the chief has led to continuing wars, campaigns or programs, long after it became relatively clear that the strategy employed was not effective.

Government decisions are made more complex because they have a political side to them, and there is often a cost in making a correct decision. The decision in 1980 to close Sydenham Hospital, an obsolete facility in Harlem which was replaced by a much newer one, caused considerable distress in the community because Sydenham was the first voluntary hospital in the United States to have African-American physicians on its staff. The hospital building was aging, and did not meet contemporary standards for a hospital even thirty years ago. Deputy Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. and public health professionals recommended the closing of the hospital, which was also regarded as providing inferior care for its remaining patients. The dispute was in part stirred by people who would never use the hospital themselves if they were ill. Mayor Koch later said that he regrets closing the hospital, although the decision was made on the merits. In any event, the hospital would certainly have closed years ago, as many newer hospitals have been shuttered.

One must also consider the likelihood that if the people are going to throw you out of office if you act on the objective merits of a particular issue, you may desire to try to keep your job so you and your devoted and hardworking staff can continue the good work which has been shown in many other areas. Political self-immolation is not required over basically local decisions that generate strong emotions among those who disagree with your position. There is also the problem that eventual outcomes of particular decisions can be difficult to predict reliably at the time when the decision (to build or not to build) must be made. If an obsolete police station or other facility is closed now, and the replacement is not completed by the next election, that may impact voters' attitudes toward the decision and the official held responsible for it.

We have discussed a number of aspects of the decision-making process in this essay, necessarily relatively superficially because of length limitations. We will return to the subject if our readers are interested. Let us know.

 

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