“It’s a great idea, but …”

As a veteran observer of clever bureaucrats, I have come to admire a tactic often employed by the secretary of the treasury, Timothy Geithner. When the White House is considering reforms that he does not favor—and major reform is something Geithner rarely embraces—he doesn’t say, “This is a terrible idea and I’m against it.” Instead, he begins by praising the proposal and its proponents: “It’s a great idea, really brilliant of you fellows to think of it.” Then, seemingly almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Have you considered that there’s just a chance that it could lead to a Wall Street meltdown?”

It is a technique worthy of Sir Humphrey, the wily civil servant played by Ni -gel Hawthorne on the British television series Yes Minister.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.