The overwhelming perception in political circles is that anyone worth considering for vice president is already a household name, or at least well-known in political circles. This has led, in the conventional wisdom, to the dismissal of several rising GOP stars — Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal? Not ready yet. Sarah Palin? Alaska’s too far away and too small a proving ground. Tim Pawlenty? The Minnesota governor is barely noticed on the national scene.
If three sitting governors can be dismissed as “unknowns,” one can only imagine the chattering class’ reaction to the sudden buzz about Frederick W. Smith.
Most Americans have never heard of Smith, a McCain campaign co-chair. But they know, usually admire, and have probably used the company he built from the ground up, Federal Express (today simply FedEx).
Smith isn’t even a well-known figure within the McCain camp, although he fits a recurring theme in McCain’s remarks about “dollar-a-year men,” bright figures from the corporate sector coming to Washington to overhaul failing bureaucracies and spur new and innovative approaches to government services.
For a man most Americans couldn’t identify in a police lineup, Smith has led a remarkable life. His grandfather was a steamboat captain, and his father, who died when Smith was four, built from scratch a regional bus line that became part of Greyhound. His mother and uncles raised him, and he learned to fly a plane as a teenager. While at Yale University, he was a classmate and fraternity brother of George W. Bush and worked weekends as a charter pilot. The most often-cited anecdote in profiles of Smith is the story of a paper for a class at Yale detailing the need for reliable overnight delivery in the information age, about a decade before the birth of Federal Express. Smith recollects he got his “usual C” for the idea. He was a member of Skull and Bones, and one of his closest friends was John Kerry.
After getting a bachelor’s in economics, Smith joined the Marines and served two tours of duty in Vietnam, receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. (Interestingly, he has called the Vietnam War “one of the great historical mistakes of all times.”)
But Smith was still devoted to the overnight-shipping concept, and raised $80 million from investors to found Federal Express. The business’ first two years were chaotic; another oft-cited anecdote is that in 1973, he was in such dire need of cash that he flew to Las Vegas, won $27,000 at blackjack, and wired the money back to his struggling company.
Federal Express grew, of course, into an icon of modern business and one of the great American success stories, perennially ranking on Fortune magazine’s industry lists, including World’s Most Admired Companies, America’s Most Admired Companies, the 100 Best Companies to Work For, and the Blue Ribbon Companies List.
Smith played himself in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, and is getting involved in financing film production with the company making The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.
There is little doubt that as a CEO, Smith was indeed a leader; he has constantly touted the importance of rewarding workers and building loyalty.
Smith is a bit more tied to right-of-center political causes than one might initially think. He’s a member of the Business Roundtable and the Cato Institute, and is co-chairman of the Energy Security Leadership Council. (John Judis denounced Smith in his book The Paradox of American Democracy as an example of a politically involved business leader who embraces “a kind of irresponsible individualism.”) He served as chairman of the U.S.-China Business Council and the French-American Business Council, was co-chairman of the U.S. World War II Memorial Project, and served on the boards of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Mayo Foundation.
(He would probably be the first vice president who ever called the late military journalist David Hackworth “a national treasure.”)
While Smith’s life story and hands-on experience managing a large, successful corporation in the era of globalization would be a lovely addition to any future administration, Smith’s potential flaws as a running mate are clear. He has never held elected office, nor sought it, which would complicate the “experience” charge used against Obama. He speaks with a light Tennessee lilt, and comes across as brainy and soft-spoken in interviews. But it remains unknown whether that style would be effective on the campaign trail. Could he be an attack dog? How would he handle a slick jab from, say, Sen. Joe Biden in a debate?
(Smith’s thin political background may have a tempting upside: The DNC’s attack sheet on Smith is embarrassingly thin, consisting of “Smith’s company spent $6.5 million lobbying Congress last year and its PAC contributed $2.2 million to federal candidates over the last 4 years.” Horrors.)
Were McCain to select Smith, the attacks would be pretty predictable: A corporate CEO? A man who was compensated $32 million last year, and whose compensation has been almost $90 million over the past five years?
Another old (63) white male?
While Smith’s honesty is blunt and refreshing, his assessment of his own flaws might give some voters pause:
The reason I never lost confidence is because I never believed that the consequences of losing were as bad as some other people might have thought, you know? “Oh my goodness, I’ve lost my money!” or what have you. I mean, I just wasn’t motivated along those lines. And I was very, very, very sure that what we were doing was extremely important and was destined to be successful. So that’s the definition I think of an insane person, or a zealot. And most entrepreneurs, I think you would find, have that sort of green wire laid in there just a little bit cross-wise. And they begin to get focused on something, and they believe in the idea or themselves far beyond what they probably should.
One member of the McCain team thinks that among the recently mentioned possibilities, Smith is a relative longshot. But after a relatively low profile, his name has arisen in two lists from opposing sources — the DNC’s hit list, preemptively denouncing seven possible running mates for McCain, and William Kristol’s column in the New York Times.
For now, Smith remains a possible member of a future McCain cabinet, and a very outside-the-box possibility for a nominee whose instinctive inclination is to be a maverick. Politicians are always tempted to promise overnight results; Smith would be one of the few men who can say he actually produced them, with a delivery guarantee
– Jim Geraghty writes the “Campaign Spot” blog on NRO.