In last week’s hagiographic piece on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joe Klein of TIME says “After a quietly impressive career in government that has spanned more than 30 mostly Republican years, Robert Gates is suddenly seeming almost, well, charismatic. He reeks authority. He is, according to several sources, the most respected voice in National Security Council debates. The President is said to love his unadorned manner. Much of which is attributable to the fact that, in the self-proclaimed twilight of his public career, Gates has emerged as that most exotic of Washington species — the bureaucrat unbound, candid and fearless. He tells members of Congress what he really thinks about their pet programs. He upends Pentagon priorities, demotes the military-industrial hardware pipeline and promotes the immediate needs of the troops on the front line.”
Bob Gates is really good at what he does. The Klein piece goes on, “Gates originally had planned to retire after a year or so, but he seems to have settled in, found a level of comfort and influence with the Obama Democrats that he never quite expected. ‘I don’t do maintenance,’ Gates told me. ‘I would never do a job just to sustain the status quo. I like to go into an institution that’s already good and do everything I can to make it better.’”
What Klein, and too much of Washington and America won’t acknowledge, however, is that Bob Gates is the product of a system that promotes the best talent based on merit, and he’s hardly alone.
Let me give you some numbers. The Federal civil service has about two million members. (In 1992 there were 2.169 million. Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review lowered the total to 1.814 by 2000, and in 2008 it was back up a bit to 1.875.) The Senior Executive Service – the equivalent to Generals and Admirals in the military – has about 6,000 career members (I’m not counting the political appointees). That’s a lot of people, even though it’s only three tenths of one percent (0.003%) – and all were chosen because of their accomplishments, not their acquaintances.
There’s another group that’s even more exclusive: the recipients of the Distinguished Rank Awards from within the Senior Executive Service. Only 60 of these awards are given out annually. Each recipient gets a nice check, a framed certificate, a photo-op with the President, and (at least the year I got one) an invitation for two to a lovely formal dinner at the State Department. Note that only 0.00003 percent of Federal government workers get this award each year. That’s the equivalent of only 9,000 Americans nationwide.
You might think that incoming cabinet secretaries and other agency heads would ask for the names of these folks and get to know them, individually or in a group, when they come in and take over. They might have some good advice. After all, we “know the territory.”
Never heard of that happening, though. I guess we’re too exotic.