Ladies and Gentlemen, the CEO of the United States

Wanted: Chief executive officer for superpower country. Must be self-starter with excellent interpersonal skills. Previous experience necessary in conducting thermonuclear brinkmanship, resolving intractable ethnic conflicts, living under the constant threat of assassination and unrelenting media scrutiny. Benefits include exclusive use of landmark house and weekend retreat, radiation-hardened 747 transport, 24-hour security detail and command of 1 million air, land and sea troops.

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You would think your garden-variety ambitious chief executive officer would actively covet the ultimate CEO slot: the White House-dwelling, press conference-evading, Secret Service-surrounded, one-and-only genuine commander in chief. In short, the president. Of the United States.

You want power? How about an Air Force warrant officer following two steps behind with codes that, detente and disarmament notwithstanding, you can still use to incinerate the planet.

Want to show some dictator you mean business? Make a couple of calls and--whammo!--60 cruise missiles, at $1 million a pop, are raining down on his air-defense infrastructure.

You want perks? Well, there's Air Force One, and it's a beauty: room for you and 70 of your crew, dinner when you want it, highball glasses embossed with the GREAT SEAL OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Plus, anybody gets weird with you or your family, you've got muscle trained to inflict major hurt or even catch a bullet. Not to mention high school bands that show up wherever you land and play your song when you ankle down the portable stairs.

You want big bucks? All right, so the package is a little lean in that regard: $200,000 straight up--no bonus, no stock, no parachute. But when you figure practically everything short of your wardrobe and personal grocery tab is picked up by the taxpayers--your plane and cars and security and the lot, at a cost that's been estimated to top $150 million annually--it's not such a bad deal. As Richard M. Nixon noted famously during his abbreviated stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: "We're roughing it pretty nicely."

So you'd think the real fire-breathing CEOs in America--Disney/Cap Cities' Michael D. Eisner, Sunbeam's Al Dunlop, American Airlines' Robert L. Crandall or GE's John F. (Jack) Welch Jr.--would kill for that kind of prestige and clout.

Think again.

"Jack Welch wouldn't even dream of it," laughs Pendelton James, a New York-based executive search consultant who recruited the bulk of the president's kitchen Cabinet during the Reagan administration. "It just wouldn't work. You can take the most capable CEO and he wouldn't last three days in the executive branch. It's a whole different mind-set."

Is it ever. The main problem, say James and other executive headhunters, is management style. Where a president holds consensus-building sacred and governs largely by committee, the private-sector CEO expects to rule by fiat. "If he wants to close the plant in Kentucky, he closes it," James says. "The president can't close down anything. Ronald Reagan tried to shut down the Department of Energy. You saw what happened there."

Ross Perot, by the way, is thought to confirm these theories, not disprove them. "Perot is the only businessman on the scene, and he verges on the eccentric," says Bob Dingman, a Westlake Village-based search consultant. "His short fuse is demonstrable. His inability to compromise would wipe him out in 30 days."

Nor are CEOs interested in the having their laundry, dirty or otherwise, aired in the name of the republic. Nobody from the private sector has forgotten what happened to Gary Hart. Or what may happen to Bill and Hillary Clinton. And as much as a semi-celebrity CEO like Bill Gates already lives in a fishbowl, says Dingman, "the fishbowl of public office is so extreme, hardly anybody wants it. We have made public office so onerous that most men of real ability and integrity have no interest. The price is too high, the rewards too low."

Adds Gary Kaplan, a Pasadena search executive: "The flip side is that, fundamentally, [the presidency] is the ultimate position of power in the world. Bill Clinton is largely attracted by that; so is Bob Dole. What else can you achieve in life when you have a personality that screams out for attention? CEOs are just the opposite: A low profile is the best profile. That kind of psychological makeup is not going to be attracted to political power."

Indeed, even the most megalomaniacal CEO would have little use for power that comes shrink-wrapped in red tape, with strings attached. Says Frederick Wackerly, a Chicago-based search executive: "Sure, it's the pluperfect power job, but it's also a job where you have to suffer the potentially largest pool of fools in the world. If a CEO gets ticked off at somebody, he can fire them. But you can't fire a senator." Wackerly sputters just contemplating the thought. "You can't downsize Congress."

There's also, well, pride. "The ego of CEOs does not permit them to go out and ask for funds," says Dingman. "Jack Welch asking $5,000 a plate at a dinner to support him? No way."

But let's say the American people, weary of idiotic campaigns, dreary conventions and toothless debates, somehow decided to select their CEO they way Kellogg's or PepsiCo might go about it: by putting an executive recruiter on the job. Headhunters generally think this is a hilarious--and completely impractical--idea.

For starters, the standard fee paid a headhunter--one-third of the candidate's first-year cash: in the president's case, about $60,000--is laughably low, given the task of canvassing for a leader of the Free World. "Can you imagine taking on a search for the president of the United States for that?" Dingman snorts.

"My initial thought is that it's an impossible recruit," adds Wackerly. "If you found a business executive with strong patience and conciliatory capacity, someone near the end of his or her career with nothing to prove, it might work. But ordinarily it would be like a body rejecting a transplanted organ, because the capacity to work and get things done in government is the ability to get results through give and take. And that ain't the way business runs."

Money, or lack thereof, would be another snag, even though, as James points out, "if you're interested in money, you don't run for public office at any level."

Still, by private-sector standards, the president is "grossly undercompensated," Kaplan says. "This guy would probably not be part of a company's executive management at this compensation level. I would imagine, for example, that the lead human resources executive at GE makes considerably more than the president. We have searches going right now for positions in the lower end of senior management that are compensated much more handsomely." Even the Presidents of the United States, the Seattle rock band whose debut album sold more than 2 million copies, earns more than the president of the United States.

So what should the president earn? The first Continental Congress, leery of kingly trappings, seriously considered making the presidency a zero-sum proposition before agreeing on a salary of $25,000 a year. (It has been raised only four times since; the last, from $100,000 to $200,000, effective with the Nixon administration.) And while the trend is now to pay CEOs smallish base salaries with huge bonuses pegged to earnings per share or profits, the president's job offers no such incentives.

So even though an actual CEO in the Oval Office might be jarring--"if we switched from a Walt Disney president to a Michael Eisner president, from paternalistic to earnings-per-share driven, I'm not sure the country could stand it," Dingman notes--the hypothetical bottom line demands a figure: Just what is the job of the president of the United States worth on the open market?

"Assuming there wouldn't be a hue and cry from the populace," Kaplan says, "realistically, it's probably a seven-figure position or multiples of that. If we were really going to be serious, the base compensation would be on the low side, maybe $800,000 to $1.5 million to justify the commitment he has to make.

"I mean," Kaplan adds, referring to the visible seasoning of our once-youthful CEO of the United States, "take a look at Clinton's hair."

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A CEO SAMPLER

The president of the United States is at the low end of the list of the country's highest-paid corporate chiefs. Below are some notable executives, their annual compensation and the market value of company stock each owns (where applicable), as of April 1996.

William H. Gates, Microsoft, $563,000; $14.9 billion

Philip H. Knight, Nike, $2,178,000; $4.5 billion

Roberto C. Goizueta, Coca-Cola, $5,056,000; $672.4 million

Michael R. Quinlan, McDonald's, $2,723,000; $27.5 million

Alex J. Trotman, Ford Motor Co., $5,431,000; $13.1 million

Michael D. Eisner, Walt Disney, $8,782,000; $184 million

John F. "Jack" Welch Jr., General Electric, $13,997,000; $34.7 million

David H. Murdock, Dole Food Co., $1,487,500; $533.2 million

Nolan D. Archibald, Black & Decker, $4,528,000; $5.8

Robert L. Crandall, American Airlines, $3,188,000; $5.7 million

Steven F. Goldstone, RJR Nabisco, $1,388,000; $1.7 million

Gerald M. Levin, Time Warner, $5,050,000; $14.7 million

Presidents of the United States, rock band, estimated $1 million (record royalties only)

Laurence A. Tisch, Loews, $922,000; $1.3 billion

Arnold G. Langbo, Kellogg, $1,645,000; $6 million

William J. Clinton, United States of America, $370,000 ($200,000 salary, $170,000 expense allowances).

CEO stock value source: Forbes

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