Your school system is in free fall, its leaders universally derided. You've got weapons in the classrooms, more dropouts than you can count, test scores that look like temperatures on the tundra.
Solution: Get a general.
The District of Columbia, which last month summoned retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. to duty as CEO of its sorry school system, is not the first city to call in the cavalry to fix the schools. Before turning to Becton, the D.C. financial control board studied Seattle, which last year hired as its superintendent Becton's friend John Stanford, a retired general with not a minute's experience in running a school system.
All around the country, institutions in trouble are turning to generals to get the job done. The Library of Congress suffers racial strife, difficult labor relations and a wobbly public image; it calls in Gen. Don Scott to be deputy librarian. The National Air and Space Museum takes a huge hit from the controversy over allegations that its planned Enola Gay exhibition rewrote American history; the Smithsonian hires retired Vice Adm. Donald Engen, a World War II dive-bomber pilot and veteran of three wars, to repair the damage.
ValuJet and USAir are rocked by plane crashes. Immediately, they bring in Air Force generals as safety czars to boost public confidence. In New Jersey, state investigators accuse a county utilities authority of massive waste and corruption. The answer: a 35-year Army veteran.
Even President Clinton has realized the symbolic power of the retired general. When Clinton's war on drugs fell under attack, he got himself a four-star general, Barry McCaffrey, to be national drug policy director. In his first debate with Bob Dole this fall, Clinton responded to Republican claims that he is weak on drug abuse by trumpeting his appointment of a combat veteran with two Silver Stars for heroism, a man who was "the most heavily decorated soldier in uniform when he retired."
Two decades after Vietnam, the military's image has pivoted cleanly. The sad specter of a drug-ridden corps of high school dropouts has been replaced by a reputation so golden that--at least so far--it has withstood the tests of occasional sex scandals and profligate spending.
In a society casting about for leadership and direction, the military stands as an easy answer.
A retired general is spit and polish. Order and discipline. Expectations and results.
"Retired general." Two words with such Taoist balance. At once at ease and in charge. Calm yet powerful. Benign yet can-do.
"We're proven, we know how to take orders, we know how to do more with less," says the Library of Congress' Scott. "Society wants more order and more structure."
Listen to Becton in his inaugural address to the control board: "Remember, children first. Failure is not an option." Moving between professions known for their impenetrable jargon, the general uses rhetoric that is refreshingly frank and imperative: "We will fix it."
Becton says his military background has no particular symbolic meaning: "My background is no different from anyone else's. I went to high school, I worked."
But the people who hired him knew what they wanted.
"Obviously he exercises very, very strong authority and order and discipline," says control board member Joyce Ladner. "One lady came up to me in the supermarket and said, 'Please get the general, because I was in the Army and we had order and discipline and that's definitely what we need in the school system.' "
"The Army is authoritarian," says R. Calvin Lockridge, the controversial former D.C. school board member who left the board in disgrace. "When institutions get into trouble, the first thing they do is look for authority, a Mr. Fix-It. And when something is as chaotic as the public schools, they bring in a general."
"Making the trains run on time is not to be pooh-poohed," says Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who studies the military. "In a world of crumbling institutions, the military stands out for its cohesion."
Turning the reins of power over to a general is an American tradition, especially in tough times, especially in the aftershock of war. The nation turned to Gens. Washington, Grant and Eisenhower for stability, leadership and inspiration, with varying degrees of success.
Yet the longing for occasional injections of military discipline continues even in a country governed by the myth of rugged individualism. After the Persian Gulf War, Gen. Colin Powell became one of the nation's most admired men and was courted as a presidential and vice presidential candidate. And Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf parlayed his field command of U.S. forces in the gulf into a quiver of corporate directorships, honorary chairmanships and even an appearance on a Leonard Slatkin CD, reading Copland's majestic "Lincoln Portrait."
The fantasy of the military man--or woman--rising over the horizon to come save the day is wonderfully American, wonderfully Hollywood.
In just the past year, Hollywood has placed military officers in a slew of rough-and-tumble classrooms. In "Dangerous Minds," Michelle Pfeiffer plays a tough but fair Marine who quits the corps to take on a roomful of truculent high school kids and lead them to triumph. In "The Substitute," Tom Berenger is a career mercenary come to Miami's Christopher Columbus High School to lay down the law--and wow the kids with tales of Vietnam--thereby civilizing a jungle of thugs and metal detectors. And in "Major Payne," Damon Wayans flops in the Marine Corps but flourishes as an ROTC commander at a Virginia prep school, where his nasty tirades and boorish manner scare the little beasts straight.
"These Hollywood stereotypes create totally unrealistic expectations," says Stanford, the Seattle superintendent, who is so upset with the depiction of military commanders in "Courage Under Fire" that he offers a frame-by-frame deconstruction of Meg Ryan's climactic scene in this year's Gulf War drama. "When you're in a leadership position, you never threaten anybody. Leadership is not pulling your gun on another person, it is being in love with people and the process."
Leadership is the key attraction of the retired generals. As a rule, they have no experience whatsoever running schools, cities or corporations. Stanford's expertise was logistics. Becton was known for his organizational skills.
"The thing about us is we know no failure," Stanford says. "Now there are people who watch too many movies, who expect us to order them around." Despite the sometimes unreasonable expectations, Stanford has enjoyed broad support from parents, business leaders and teachers, many of whom seem enchanted by his gung-ho manner and ramrod rhetoric.
Hiring a general almost universally produces a windfall of good publicity, a swelling of popular pride and an epidemic of good morale.
The newspaper stories are predictably effusive, littered with praise for the generals' "crisp" manner and "passion for order."
Military rhetoric spreads like the Ebola virus through institutions in crisis: Each general has a mission. The resurrection of the agency is a campaign. There's zero tolerance for slackers. There will be results.
Stanford, who had never given a moment's thought to running a school system, was hired after Seattle's last schools chief quit amid charges that he'd misused public money. The new boss quickly changed the school system's motto from "Every child can learn" to "Every child will learn." He boasted that he would need only six months to turn the system around.
A year later, he says, "The jury is still out. But I believe we will do it."
If the elites who hire retired generals have unrealistically high expectations of them, that may be because the military, which once drew from every stratum of society, is now an institution with which the elite has little contact.
In Moskos' Princeton class of 1956, 500 of the 750 graduates served in the military. Among Princeton's 1,100 graduates in 1994, 14--that's 14--went into the service.
"That absence of elite service magnifies the perceived efficiency and majesty of military experience," the sociologist says. "So now we have people like our president with no military experience selecting military leaders. And in our school systems, that Hollywood image of the military man--a little distant, heart of gold, the Lou Gossett Jr. character--is very appealing."
"The military becomes almost idolized as the public becomes less familiar with the military because of the end of the draft," says Col. Charles Dunlap Jr. of the U.S. Strategic Command.
Dunlap is the author of a controversial fantasy called "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012," which tells the tale of Gen. Thomas E.T. Brutus, who takes over the White House as permanent Military Plenipotentiary. Dunlap's article in a relatively obscure journal called Parameters traces the origins of the coup to the early 1990s, when a crumbling society turns in desperation to its military, asking that soldiers fix the schools, solve the drug problem, repair the infrastructure and quash the crime problem.
"Disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation's dilemmas," the nation breaks down the traditional wall between its uniformed services and its political leaders, the story says.
"The military's expertise is based on a very narrow and unique human endeavor--waging war," Dunlap says in an interview. "Eventually, all of this nonmilitary work will squander the military's reputation because some of these generals won't live up to the public expectation."
Even moves as apparently benign as hiring a general to run the schools add up to an erosion of the military's mission and a threat to American democracy, he says. Dunlap believes retired officers should be banned from any public office for five years after leaving the service. Instead, he says, they should do charitable work.
"I'm a product of Catholic schools, so I appreciate how discipline and uniforms can help the teaching process," Dunlap says. "But it's not necessarily a good precedent to set military values as national values. Many of the things we have in the military are just not transferable to civilian society. For example, we don't allow the kind of intellectual entrepreneurship which is so vital to a capitalist society."
Scott sees the danger inherent in his transition from Vietnam and Desert Storm to the battlefield of the Library of Congress. "We have to realize we're not in a culture that is accustomed to following orders," he says. "The need for consensus, to touch all the bases before you move ahead, is far more demanding in the civilian sector. I resist saying you can bring what worked in the military into the civilian world. It generally does not work."
Other retired generals now in command of other institutions don't buy Dunlap's fantasy. "What do you suggest you do with this resource you've built up over 35 years?" Stanford asks. "Do you squander that? What do you do with people like me and Becton, who come out with this incredible quality of duty and honor? Let those in uniform fight the cold and hot wars. Let those who have retired fight the domestic war."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Public Vs. Private Sector
In a time of racial strife, "there's no institution with a greater reputation for racial equality" than the military, according to Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist.
Indeed, one notable aspect of the new demand for retired officers' services is the prominence of African Americans who are being called. As the sociologist notes, there is no other institution in American society in which whites are routinely bossed around by blacks. Retired generals Julius W. Becton Jr., new head of the District of Columbia school system; John Stanford, superintendent of Seattle's school system; and Don Scott, deputy librarian of the Library of Congress are African American, as are 9% of Army generals and one-third of all Army first sergeants.
But while white generals often pop up in corporate suites, black generals find that their offers come almost exclusively from the public sector, according to a study by Moskos.
"I can't think of one of my African American colleagues who got into the private sector at the vice president level or higher," Scott says. Despite generals' high credibility ranking in society, corporations considering a black general "may perceive some threat about bringing in someone who's not used to following orders."