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March 24th, 2017

Insight

United States Inc.: Running for office and running the government are not the same as running a business

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published July 4, 2016

Mark Hanna. Henry Ford. Herbert Hoover. Wendell Willkie. Donald Rumsfeld. Lloyd Bentsen. Lee Iacocca. George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush. Donald Trump. And J. Irwin Miller.

J. Irwin Miller? We’ll get to him in a moment, because lone among the names above, his doesn’t quite fit. The others are prominent business executives who thought about running for president, who did run for president, or who, in three cases — Mr. Hoover and the two Bushes — actually did win the White House.

The United States began as a political movement but won global power as a result of business acumen and accomplishment. And, for more than a century, the country has flirted with the notion of running the country like a business, which is exactly what Mr. Willkie, a utility executive, and Mr. Bentsen, an insurance executive with large family ranch holdings, and Mr. Trump, a real-estate and casino tycoon, have vowed they would bring to the Oval Office. Just the other day, Mr. Trump added another anti-politician element, arguing that the 2016 election was a choice about whether the nation is to be “ruled by the people or by the politicians.”

Most of the time, voters have rejected business executives’ entreaties, the political arts being so different from the skills required for success in business and played out in messier, more personal corridors of power. “These two professions are largely incompatible,” said Daphne Taras, dean of the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan. “Business leaders are used to a hierarchical structure where their subordinates are obedient. In politics, the subordinates are legislators or voters, many of whom believe their job is to torment the leader.”

Some business leaders, to be sure, have prevailed in the political game. Silvio Berlusconi, a media billionaire, was the four-time leader of Italy, but then was convicted of tax fraud. Neville Chamberlain ran a sisal plantation and managed a manufacturing business before becoming British prime minister and the unhappy symbol of pre-World War II appeasement. Mr. Hoover and both Bushes are remembered for economic difficulties at the end of their terms, two of them for major stock market crashes.

This — only weeks before the likely nomination of Mr. Trump as the Republican presidential nominee — is where the venerable J. Irwin Miller, who died 12 years ago, comes in.

Mr. Miller didn’t run for president, though many people thought he should. Indeed, in October 1967 — not an easy time in American life, with racial tensions, a youth rebellion and a war in Vietnam raging — Esquire magazine published a pensive picture of Mr. Miller on its cover, with a beguiling headline: “This man ought to be the next president of the United States.”

Of course, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was girding for a re-election battle he eventually would not undertake, did not agree, nor did Richard M. Nixon, who actually did become the next president of the United States, nor did Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who became the Democratic presidential nominee, nor also Sens. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Robert F. Kennedy of New York and Govs. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Ronald Reagan of California and George Romney of Michigan (himself a former chairman and president of American Motors Corp.), all of whom eyed the White House as well.

Americans have always bemoaned the lack of quality figures to run for president — as long ago as 1888 James Bryce regretted that “great men” do not run for the office — so the Esquire boost for Mr. Miller, who headed Cummins Engine Co. in Columbus, Ind., and was lay president of the National Council of Churches, was part of a long tradition. Even so, the closest Mr. Miller came to a presidential campaign was becoming national chairman for Mr. Rockefeller’s White House drive the next year.

Nonetheless, the unusual Esquire effort serves as a standard against which other business leaders, including Mr. Trump, can be measured.

Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Miller was no crusader against the prevailing order, even in an era when disorder was the leitmotif of the time. “He was the first of those people who could be identified as the ‘Chairman of the Board’ of the Establishment,” said U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Jose A. Cabranes, who served with Mr. Miller at Yale Corp. “He was the quintessential honest, upright citizen.”

Nearly everyone who knew Mr. Miller agrees. “A wonderful example of how responsible business leaders behaved,” said Paul O’Neill, former chairman and CEO of Alcoa Inc. and later treasury secretary. Added Henry Schacht, who succeeded Mr. Miller at Cummins and now is senior adviser to the private equity firm Warburg Pincus LLC in New York: “Among the business leaders of his era he set the standard for thoughtfulness, far-sightedness, conscience and vision.” John R. Price, retired chief of the Pittsburgh Home Loan Bank and a top Nixon domestic adviser, describes Mr. Miller as “the old-guard, moderate Republican establishment personified.”

And yet, for all those establishment credentials Mr. Miller did not possess the ponderous respectability of the mandarins of manufacturing of the time, nor was he untouched by the winds of change that swirled through the country and reached Columbus, Ind., where Mr. Miller invited the world’s leading architects to remake the city into an unlikely headquarters of the avant-garde. The Esquire article quoted a Miller speech urging businessmen to join what he called the “revolution” of the poor. That is populist talk of a timbre and tone suggestive of Mr. Trump.

Writing in the conservative journal National Review, the author Michael Knox Beran argues that “the conventional notions of what makes for success in life have only a slender application to the modern presidency.” This may explain, along with Mr. Trump’s style, why top AT&T, General Motors and Nextel executives endorsed Hillary Clinton recently.

Mr. Miller, too, didn’t fit the mold of presidential contenders, which of course was the whole point. Back in 1967, the legendary editor Clay Felker assigned a young writer, Steven V. Roberts, to find someone in America who would be a great president but who was virtually unknown nationally. “I thought it was almost a joke that Miller — a renaissance man who ran a business and was a patron of famous architects — was so perfect,” Mr. Roberts said the other day. Now a businessman as president is a potential reality.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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