Politics & Policy

The Case for Competence

What government's missing.

Editor’s note: Click here to listen to the original radio commentary.

Wasn’t it Casey Stengel, the old baseball manager, who said one day after the third dropped fly-ball in the outfield, “can’t anybody here play this game?” That’s sort of the way I feel when I watch certain parts of our government in action.

We’ve known for a long time that our intelligence capabilities weren’t cutting muster. It was certainly the case before 9/11, and it’s still true in Iraq and elsewhere. Now we have apparently decided that we really don’t know if North Korea has a uranium enrichment program to make bombs or not.

Whether it’s the Katrina response, the problems at Walter Reed Medical Center, bungled border security, or the IRS and FBI which can’t get their computer systems working, it seems like we’ve lost our ability to take care of some of the most basic duties of government.

Not that this problem is new. For decades, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has told us, time and time again, that we’ve lost control of the waste and fraud and mismanagement in many of our most important agencies. And it’s getting worse.

A big part of the problem is our outmoded civil-service system that makes it too hard to hire good employees and too hard to fire bad ones. The bureaucracy has become gargantuan, making accountability and reform very difficult.

Faced with this managerial swampland, the number of talented executives willing to come to Washington continues to dwindle. Those who do accept the challenges usually want to tackle big national goals in the few years they spend in public service instead of fighting their own agencies. So the bureaucracy just keeps rolling along.

Department heads should learn a lesson from Casey, who once said about his winning Yankees, “There is less wrong with this team than any team I have ever managed.”

What we need now are managers who understand that even building a government with “less wrong” about it would be a major public service and a truly worthwhile legacy. Of course, it would be nice if they got a little help from Congress and the White House.

– Fred Thompson is an actor and former United States senator from Tennessee.


Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


The Latest