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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Life Stories

Brown was consistently criticized as a wheeler-dealer but was also consistently reelected by his constituents. His response to criticism about his tactics or about standard career killers, such as having a child with a woman he was not married to, was to admit the fact, explain his position, and find common ground. In the book, as on the stump, he is candid and pragmatic: “Ethics fights can be finessed, but a silly photograph is in your face forever.” And he is undeniably effective.

Many of Brown’s ideas run counter to conventional wisdom. He believes that competence and reliability are more important than party affiliations or platforms. He kept his legislative agenda private because it allowed him to negotiate with those who would have had to oppose him if he had made it public too soon. He took money from everyone, paraphrasing California politician Jesse Unruh: “If you can’t take the lobbyists’ money, eat their food, drink their booze, sleep with their women, and then vote against them, you don’t belong here.”

Brown’s frank and direct approach to presenting his story is as telling as the incidents and advice he includes. According to his memoir, he always did his homework on the substance and on the politics. He was always prepared but also receptive to “happy accidents.” He took nothing for granted, constantly assessing levels of support. He transcended party lines to establish strong relationships of trust and respect, and any member of the assembly who wanted to talk to him had his immediate attention. He handled sensitive matters privately to prevent embarrassment to an assembly member or a party. And he knew that if an offer sounded too good to be true, someone was probably wearing a wire.

Brown could be ruthless. He describes with great satisfaction the day that five Democratic members of the assembly told him it was time to step down as speaker. While they waited to talk to him, he had them all removed from their positions as committee chairs and evicted from their offices, with their staffs fired and their furniture put out on the street. Later, however, he reassigned them all important, though lesser, positions. “I never cut any one out entirely,” he writes. “They might be renegades today, but I regarded myself as in competition for their votes in the future.” Brown never let party affiliation, history, or grudges impede future effectiveness.

In The Bush Tragedy, by Jacob Weisberg, George W. Bush comes across as a more-partisan and less-effective politician than Brown, albeit far more powerful. Slate editor-in-chief Weisberg assembles an authoritative dossier on the 43rd president in support of his psychological assessment of Bush as a man whose goal was achieved when he was sworn in. After that, Bush’s in­ability to be introspective and his impatience with subtle complexities produced reactions and decisions that were superficial, even thuggish. Weisberg comes to some of the same conclusions as McClellan, but they are more credibly documented and the illustrations are more illuminating than condemning.

The book is a cautionary tale about the difference between the qualities that get someone a job and those that it takes to do the job. And it is the story of the consequences of the inability or unwillingness to learn from mistakes and criticism. Weisberg describes Bush as “mulish” and “a man of tremendous submerged anger and no patience whatsoever.” He accuses Bush of hubris and describes his presidency as “an Icarus story — the crash to earth of someone who does not comprehend his limits or his motives.”

As often happens with biographers, Weisberg becomes a bit too enamored of his explanation of Bush’s psyche, returning again and again to the template established by Shakespeare’s Prince Hal in Henry IV to portray the president as a onetime party boy who never felt respected by his father. “To state it simply,” he writes, “the Bush Tragedy is that the son’s ungovernable relationship with his father ended up governing all of us.” Although Weisberg underestimates factors that do not support that theory and overestimates those that do, his illustrations are carefully researched, thoughtfully assembled, and lucidly presented. The strength of his book is the thoroughness of his documentation, especially in the chapters about the Bush presidency, a case study in muddled strategy and incompetent implementation. The book’s most important lesson may be that leaders are not necessarily intellectual or reflective themselves, but they will always be evaluated for history by those who are.

 
 
 
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