10/09/2006 11:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Harry Truman, Where Are You? We Need You!

A different topic from the usual ones covered in this space: Congress' confidence in President Bush's ability - or willingness -- to appoint capable people to federal posts has hit a new low. The Washington Post writes that Congress, in its overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), included a list of qualifications for the agency's next director. Prominent was the requirement that he or she have actual experience in disaster relief -- as opposed to, say, judging Arabian horses (former FEMA Director Michael Brown's expertise)

What is terribly troubling, beyond the obvious, is that the caliber of appointments highlighted by the FEMA debacle has been consistent throughout George W. Bush's presidency, beginning after 9/11 when George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was permitted to remain in his post. In most other governments -- in the United States and elsewhere -- an intelligence failing of such magnitude would have been cause for immediate dismissal. But choosing team playing over competence, President Bush permitted him to stay on.

As you may remember, the "talented" Tenet gave Bush first hand instruction on the meaning of "slam-dunks" in context of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, a lesson for which we are all still paying an enormous price. Then came the appointment of Bush administration loyalist L. Paul Bremer III, who, was described in this month's Foreign Policy Magazine by Rajiv Chandasekaran as the "Real weapon of mass destruction." It was his "arrogance . . . [that] helped Iraq become the world's most dangerous nation." Among his many moments of brilliance was dismissing tens of thousands of Baathists functionaries -- including 15,000 teachers -- from their jobs.

And, as noted earlier, there is Michael "Heck of a job, Brownie" Brown of FEMA fame and the near debacle of Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court. And the list goes on and on, including the tone deaf appointment of Dr. Zalmy Khallazid as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, whose Sunni ties became an immediate lightning rod for Shia resentments. And last but not least is, of course, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, if competence and success in his mission were the criteria for service rather than personal loyalty and teamwork, would have been handed his walking papers long ago.

Think back to Harry Truman. Here was a leader with the humility of someone not born to privilege and who clearly understood that competence as well as profound dedication to the national interest was the paramount requirement. Whether he got along with someone was a secondary consideration. For example, when George C. Marshall joined the administration, a staff member cautioned Truman, "Sir, you will be dealing with someone who feels he should be President." Truman's reply: "He's darn right!"

Harry Truman was not only brave, he held duty to country far beyond personal fiefdom and fealty. Who could serve the nation best -- that was his consistent requirement for appointments.
In their brilliant and now all too timely book "The Wise Men", Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas quote Paul Nitze, one of the authors of the Marshall Plan and director of the State Department's policy planning staff: "I have never seen such a panoply of first-class people who have never thought of putting their interests before the nation's." These people included such luminaries as John J. McCloy, Averill Harriman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Charles Bohlen, Robert Lovett, and Nitze himself. Not to mention the extraordinary likes of George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, and General Lucius Clay. Their combined wisdom brought honor to America with their vision to rebuild Europe and Japan, to bring order to the chaos of a post war world, and to create an effective bulwark against the then Stalinist menace.

General Clay, with the powers of a Roman proconsul made it a point to "bring to his job great sensitivity to the devastated psyche of the German people . . . to remind them that they were the people of Beethoven and Goethe as well as Hitler." MacArthur, meanwhile, single handedly introduced democracy to Japan while remaining ever respectful of the symbolic authority of the country's emperor. In a stream of edicts, MacArthur legally emancipated women, empowered labor unions, and began to break up the ruling oligarchy that had dominated Japan's commerce for generations. And when during the Korean war MacArthur lost his way, Truman had the courage to fire him, even though he had become a legend in his time. I still remember his triumphal return down Broadway amid hundreds of thousands of cheering people.

Just think, where would be today, were the likes of George C. Marshall our secretary of defense, had the likes of Lucius Clay and John McCloy served as heads of the Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority, were a "pre Korea" Douglas MacArthur serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and George Kennan as our resident ambassador in Iraq. Dream on! And Harry, where did you put that "buck" where it's all meant to stop.