When Smart People Do Stupid Things

April 28, 2009

By now everyone in lower Manhattan - and the rest of the country - knows that White House Military Office Director Louis Caldera either took leave of his senses or didn't have any in the first place when he authorized the low flyover of the Statue of Liberty, provoking panic among New Yorkers, who understandably felt they were about to experience a second 9-11.

At least that's the story that pundits and commentators on the incident are peddling. (Pundits being those whose job it is to point out to us those inanities of human behavior they are blessedly immune from).

But the real story is a lot more nuanced as it is emerging.  First to the man, Louis Caldera.  It turns out he's a West Point graduate, who then went on to earn a J.D. and M.B.A. at Harvard.  He has practiced law, served in the California State Assembly, and was Secretary of the Army during the Clinton Administration.  In between these doings he managed to serve as a vice chancellor of California's university system, and as the president of the University of New Mexico.

So it should be apparent that he's not quite the half-wit he's been portrayed.  Not by a long shot.

The second element of interest surrounds the manner in which the decision was arrived at.  To listen again to the pundits, he cooked this scheme up in the middle of the night, told no one about it, and then had it executed.  A one-man-band, he.

But when we turn to news media accounts, the decision to go ahead with this ill-conceived plan resulted after a number of conference calls, involving not only Mr. Caldera but members of the Department of Defense, the FAA, and finally, the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base which initiated the entire process with their request to do a flyover.  Yes, Mr. Caldera was the one who made the final decision, and as such, has rightfully accepted blame, but clearly this was an exercise in group-think gone wrong.

Moreover, it appears that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office was notified in advance, along with the Office of the Police Commissioner, although Bloomberg strongly denies he knew anything about it.

So apparently a lot of people knew about this planned flyover, and either expressly approved of it or tacitly allowed it to proceed by virtue of failing to step up and say "Are you out of your mind!?!"

It is so easy and so convenient when bad things happen to find a single scapegoat and make that individual the target of our righteous indignation.

But it's much more interesting to ponder the group dynamics that went on here - and that we see repeated in all organizations - that allow such clearly flawed decisions to be made.  Except for the pundits, that is.

Copyright © 2009 by Larry Kilbourne