Gwen Moritz

Tone at The Top

Gwen Moritz Editor's Note

Tone at The Top
Gerald R. Ford (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum)

In 2007, Harvard business professor Roger Porter wrote an article for Harvard Magazine in which he applied the management concept of “tone at the top” to the leadership style of President Gerald Ford, whom Porter served as a special assistant.

“He was a down-to-earth American to whom his fellow countrymen could relate. His decency, openness, and integrity became the hallmarks of his administration,” Porter wrote. “Having never been through the ordeal of a presidential campaign, he owed no favors and had made no commitments. This gave him great freedom in selecting his advisers and cabinet officers. He made the most of the opportunity, assembling perhaps the most distinguished and capable cabinet of any twentieth-century president.”

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In one of life’s little ironies that would be delicious if it weren’t so distasteful, Roger Porter’s son Rob resigned in disgrace last month from his position as White House staff secretary to the current president, whose personal decency and integrity — such as they are — have also become hallmarks of his administration.

In the weeks since his resignation, it has become clear that Rob Porter was a welcome and respected staff member even though the FBI considered him a blackmail risk because he had been accused of abuse by both of his ex-wives (and at least one subsequent girlfriend, if anyone is counting).

Abusing women is obviously not a deal-breaker for a man who felt his success as a sexual predator was brag-worthy. For the Trump Organization to employ someone like Porter in the private sector certainly would not have been surprising. But well-documented Republican horror about careless handling of sensitive government secrets might have been expected to give President Trump and his designated grownup, Chief of Staff John Kelly, pause about employing someone who could not get the security clearance that was standard for his position.

Apparently not. Porter was embraced and defended even after his exes shared their experiences with the Daily Mail of London.

I’m not quite cynical enough to believe that Porter was hired because of his record of abuse, the way someone like, say, Betsy DeVos was the chosen as secretary of education specifically because of her hostility toward public education. (Trump’s cabinet was never in the running for “the most distinguished and capable” of any 21st-century president.) I am cynical enough to believe Porter was kept on after the FBI concluded that he couldn’t get clearance because the Trump administration takes neither spousal abuse nor security seriously.

In his article for Harvard Magazine, Roger Porter described Gerald Ford’s philosophy on staffing: “Though he viewed his staff very much as a team, he worried about groupthink and a circle-the-wagons mentality.” It’s painful to contrast that with Trump’s approach to staffing, the tone at the top that makes protecting Trump from the consequences of his own incompetence paramount.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described Porter as “a rare competent staffer.” The parade of maladroits and misfits in and out of the White House over the past year — Flynn, Bannon, Priebus, Manigault, Scaramucci, even Kelly, now that we know how comfortable he feels lying to the public — helps explain why a Rhodes scholar like Porter was of more than ordinary value. Or certainly could have been had he not been an accused serial abuser who couldn’t get standard security clearance because he was a blackmail risk.

Because Trump and/or Kelly refused to do the difficult, correct thing, which would have been to ease Porter out as soon as his defects were made known to the White House, this hiring mistake was allowed to blow up into a full-fledged scandal that opened the door to revelations of other defective hires.

Donald Trump’s one supposed qualification for the presidency was his presumed business acumen, which normally includes the ability to surround oneself with (as Candidate Trump promised) “the best people.” Of course, Republican leaders knew that Trump’s image as a great businessman was a TV reality show ruse even as they appeased and endorsed him as their party’s finest.

Before he too rolled over, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio described Trump as a “con man.” Not coincidentally, “The Confidence Man” is the title of an episode about Trump in Netflix’s excellent new anthology of short documentaries called “Dirty Money.”

“Donald Trump, in the scope of American business life, really shouldn’t be understood as someone in the tradition of John Rockefeller, Steve Jobs or Henry Ford,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told Fisher Stevens, director of the episode. “He’s P.T. Barnum.”

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at