One lesson of the recent meltdown in Salem is that it's all too possible for the governor -- or for that matter the executive of any large organization who must govern through a small circle of assistants -- to have his or her access to information and to public thinking cut off by those assistants, or by one or two of them. Dr. Kitzhaber is not the first to suffer the consequences of this malady: recall the final years of the Nixon White House as one example of this common phenomenon.
The phenomenon is unfortunate but understandable. A governor (or president, or general, or chief executive officer, or other Pooh-Bah) of an organization that employs tens of thousands of people and that must respond to public opinion can't talk with everyone who wants a few minutes of the Pooh-Bah's time. Nor can the person at the apex answer every letter or every e-mail - staff must handle most of the requests or let them go unanswered, and from the point of view of the person who wants the boss's attention, unnoticed.
It's also understandable because the cadre around the boss owe their jobs to the boss's favor, and can sometimes score perquisites for themselves from others who see them as access points to the boss. The result is that members of the cadre don't want to bring bad news to the boss, or disagree, or mention unpleasant facts even when a crisis develops, preferring to flatter the boss by praising his or her judgment, brilliance, and management skills. What the executive needs is someone who has access to the executive and whose job doesn't depend on the exec's good humor -- someone who can tell the truth without repercussions.
I'm reminded of the Roman civil servant (possibly a slave) who, as the conquering general was given a parade and a hero's welcome, and then a crown of laurels, would whisper in the general's ear, "Remember thou art mortal." (Mel Brooks does a fine rendition of this tradition in "History of the World, Part I.")
It occurred to me that Pooh-Bahs of many sorts, including our future governors, would benefit by having on staff a person, hired for a fixed term or protected by civil service, whose function would be to follow the governor around, listen to the governor's speeches and meetings, and then once or twice a week tell the governor privately whether the governor was being statesmanlike or foolish. This person might also spend one day a week reading the mail that the governor receives from ordinary citizens and then summarizing it to the governor, without fear or favor. It would not be necessary to remind the governor of his or her mortality -- we have the ballot box and the newspapers for that -- but simply, by expressing an unbiased opinion and passing public sentiment through to the governor, perhaps staving off crises such as the one our state is going through now.