The Achievement Gap


        The argument about Gore and Bush that follows is so contrary to the common picture that I feel I should post a warning sign:  "Sharp Turn Ahead".  I came to this contrarian position after reading an article on Gore and Bush as runners.  Turns out that Bush is a far more accomplished runner than Gore.  He runs his exercise miles at the respectable rate of  7 minutes to the mile, while Gore runs at a jogger's pace of 9 minutes to the mile.  Bush's best time in a marathon is 3 hours and 44 minutes, while Gore's best time is a much slower 4 hours and 58 minutes.  Now, how can this be?  Is not Bush supposed to be the lightweight who floated through life, while Gore has been the talented and hard working achiever?  Let's look at a summary of their careers stage by stage.

Education:  After finishing prep school, Gore and Bush each graduated from an Ivy League school, Gore from Harvard and Bush from Yale.  Neither was an outstanding scholar as an undergraduate.  (In Who's Who, Gore boasts about his academic achievements, however.)  After that, Gore spent time in a divinity school and a law school, but did not graduate from either.  Bush earned an MBA from Harvard, one of the top business schools in the country.  By the way, it is hard to think of a degree that would be a better preparation for the presidency than an MBA from Harvard.  Harvard MBAs learn to set objectives, to delegate effectively, and to use statistics to judge the results, all directly applicable to the job of being president.  It is far better preparation than a law degree.

Military Service:  Gore was an enlisted man and a reporter in the Army.  Bush was an officer and a fighter pilot in the National Guard.  For what it's worth, Bush's service was more dangerous than Gore's since fighter cockpits are riskier places to work than newspaper offices.

Business Careers:  Here the comparison is difficult, because Bush spent far more time in business than Gore did.  Gore was a reporter and an editorialist.  He never held an executive position in the newspaper, which is not surprising since his newspaper career lasted only from 1973 to 1976.  Had he stayed in the newspaper business, he might, in time, have become an editor or a publisher.  He did attempt to buy a small Tennessee newspaper but was outbid.
        In 1975, Bush founded a small oil company,  with investments from family and friends.  It was not successful and was bought out by another small oil company.  The most interesting part of the buyout was that Bush became the CEO of the merged firm.  This new firm did better than the first, but, as oil prices went down,  also got in trouble, and was bought out in turn.  This time, Bush was taken on as a consultant and board member.
        It is hard to know just what to make of this part of Bush's career.  Critics say that he was coddled by family and friends as his father's political fortunes rose.  On the other hand, there is the striking fact that, each time his firm was bought out, the buyers saw Bush himself as the biggest asset, a leader they could use.  Since the buyers were spending their own money, this is a striking vote of confidence.  One ironic point is that Bush's firms were hurt badly by the fall in price of oil, something that Reagan and the senior Bush were encouraging for most of the Reagan years.  However one evaluates these Bush years, founding an oil company is more of an achievement than being a reporter.
        In 1989, Bush became the managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.  There he was an unqualified success.  While he headed the Rangers, the team  improved in the standings, drew more fans, and built a new stadium.  Purists like myself would be happier had he not gotten the help of local taxpayers in building the stadium, although this is standard practice almost everywhere in professional baseball.  I should add that the taxpayers in Arlington, Texas do not agree with me, since they approved the deal by an overwhelming margin in a referendum with record turn out.
        One consistent theme throughout Bush's business career is that he was liked and respected as a leader by nearly everyone he worked with.  One striking example: a manager he fired from the Rangers is still a friend and supporter.

Elected Office:  Gore was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 and to the Senate in 1984.  As with the early part of Bush's business career, it is hard to evaluate Gore's legislative career.  He was not a solid insider like Senator Lugar of Indiana, who gets a lot done without much publicity.  Nor did he work on changing policy through changing the budget as Representative Waxman of California has.  (The Washington Post had a solid series on how Waxman had increased the amount spent on Medicare by billions over the years.  FWIW, they did not find evidence that Waxman's efforts improved health care, despite his impact on the budget.)  Instead, Gore chose to spend most of his time getting publicity for causes he supported.  In accounts of his time in the House and the Senate, we see, again and again, that he "held hearings" on some subject, or that he "studied" an issue.  In his campaign, Gore himself often says that he "fought" for this or will "fight" for that  Now, although these activities are important, they are incomplete without legislative action, and there his record is thinner.
        Often his legislative efforts had mixed results. For an example, consider the Superfund program, which he backed strongly.  This program, passed late in 1980, provides for the clean up of sites where dangerous chemicals have been dumped.  The objective is good, and the Superfund has, over the years, made some progress toward it.  That's the good part; now here's the bad part.  The law provides such a complex way of assigning blame that it has lead to endless delays and lawsuits.  One study by the RAND Corporation found that only 12 per cent of the spending by Superfund insurers goes to actual clean up work; most of the remaining 88 per cent goes to lawyers.  Even now, Gore is unwilling to commit himself to reform of the program.
        Gore himself seemed to recognize that his legislative career was not marked by great achievements.  According to a New York Times article on 9/3, dissatisfaction with his career was a large part of his motivation for writing that odd, imbalanced book, Earth in the Balance.
        In one area, Gore did make a significant contribution as a legislator.  Though he overstates his contribution, he did do important work in pushing new technologies, including the Internet.
        The Vice President mostly does what the President asks him to do.  Gore was actively involved in the Clinton fund raising, including some of the illegal parts.  (And, he almost certainly committed perjury in his testimony on the subject.  For example, Gore's account of his part in the the White House coffees is so far from what actually happened, that it is hard not to conclude that he lying about the subject.)
        One project that Gore took as his own was "re-inventing government".  Here, too, the grades are mixed.  Undoubtedly, the bureaucracy needs shaking up, but it is not clear whether Gore's efforts improved things, left them the same, or made them worse.  In one dramatic case, he clearly made them much worse.  The Immigration and Naturalization Service has become an organizational mess, in which immigrants often wait for years in a bureaucratic muddle.  Gore pressured the INS to hurry up decisions before the 1996 election.  They did hurry, and, in their rush, dropped some of the usual checks.  As a result, hundreds of people with criminal records were admitted to citizenship.
        Bush was elected governor of Texas in 1994 and re-elected four years later.  In his first campaign, he had promised to improve education, be tougher on crime, cut taxes, and cut back on needless lawsuits.  In office, he delivered on all four, though the tax cuts took a different form than he had proposed.  This Bush leadership success is even more impressive when you consider that the Texas governor has less power than most, and that Democrats controlled both houses of the Texas legislature when Bush took office.  Bush was so successful that he now has the support of some Democratic officials in Texas.
        The educational improvements under Bush are the most impressive part of his record.  Bush built on reforms that had begun under a Democratic predecessor, Mark White.  There were academic gains by all groups, but especially by blacks and Hispanics, who reduced the gaps that separated their scores from those of whites.  Of the 37 states that use a common test, only one, North Carolina, has gains that match those in Texas.  (If you want to see the details, the best summary I have seen of Bush's education record is in a May 1999 New York Times article, by Ethan Bronner.)
        The achievements in Gore's much longer time in office do not match what Bush has done in his short time as governor.

        Although it is not a stage in their lives, the management of their own financial affairs also tells something about the two men.  As it happens, Bush's affairs have been very well managed,  with a mix of investments close to what most financial planners would recommend.  Gore's choices, in contrast, have been so dismal that Fortune magazine has wondered if he were a "financial dolt".  Here, too, Bush has a big edge in achievement.

        In sum, what is true of Gore and Bush as runners is true of their careers as a whole.  At every stage of his life, education, military service, business, and public service, Bush has outperformed Gore.  There is every reason to expect he will achieve more as president.

        If Bush has achieved more than Gore, why do so many think otherwise?  There are two reasons.  First, as is often true, most journalists have gotten it wrong.  Most journalists thought President Eisenhower was a dimwit, though he had been the successful commander of the Allied Forces in World War II.  They thought President Ford clumsy, though he was one of the best athletes ever to serve as president.  In 1988, they thought then Vice President Bush was a wimp, though he had been a hero in World War II, had been a success in the risky oil business, and had been Director of the CIA.  They are particularly likely to err when judging Republicans, since journalists, in general, disagree with the Republicans on so many issues.  So, it is no surprise that journalists have gotten George W. Bush wrong.  (And, given their bias, intellectual laziness, and tendency to overvalue the glib, one can expect similar mistakes from journalists in the future.)
        The second reason is more of a surprise.  George W. Bush himself has encouraged the view that, for much of his life, he didn't accomplish much.  He often talks about having been irresponsible in his youth, which seems, in his telling, to have lasted till his 40th birthday.  (During this period of "irresponsibility", let me remind you, Bush earned an MBA from Harvard, became a fighter pilot, and was the CEO of two companies.  How many people do you know who have done as much by age 40?)
        Why Bush has talked down his own achievements is something of a mystery.  It may be the Bush family modesty.  (How many know that the senior Bush had a far more impressive record in World War II than John F. Kennedy?)  It may be the natural reaction of the son of a father with such high achievements.  And, last, it may be a bit of gamesmanship, a way of getting his opponents to take him less seriously than they should.  If so, that is good news for the country.  Machiavelli was right when he argued that a leader needed to be a fox as well as a lion, to be clever as well as brave.  Bush, like Eisenhower, may be foxier than he lets people think he is.  Considering his record of achievement, that is certainly the way to bet.

Truly Silly:  Left wing columnist Lars-Erik Nelson charged, in a recent column, that Bush's promise of a pay raise for servicemen constituted the offer of a bribe for votes, simply because it was so specific.  This is bizarre, given that both Gore and Bush have made similar, specific promises on taxes and dozens of other issues.  Through our nation's history, almost all our candidates have made equally specific promises.

Curious Fact:  The "Sound of Music", set partly in Austria, has never been popular there.

Worth Reading (or, why you can't always trust the Associated Press or the New York Times):  First, a column on how an Associated Press reporter hyped a story he knew was false.  So far as I can determine, neither Yost nor any of the people he quoted have apologized.  Next, a piece on how one of the New York Times' most biased reporters is unable to read a political advertisement correctly.  (Adam Clymer is the reporter who received the illegal tape of the Gingrich phone call, if the name seems familiar.  He botched that story, too.)

Worth Reading:  John Tierney's article on how Australian fishermen prosper by conserving fish, while American fishermen suffer by destroying the fishery, in the 8/27 New York Times Magazine.  (By the way, Tierney is the best columnist at the New York Times.  They hide him in the Metropolitan section, so his columns do not usually appear in the national edition.  Being able to read his columns is the best single reason to register on the New York Times site.  Registration there is free and quick.)

Quiz:  If Bush wins this year, he will become only the second son to follow his father as president.  Who was the first?
 
 
  Copyright © 2000 by James R. Miller