The Bush administration prized loyalty over competence. The next White House team will do the oppositeby / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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Almost nobody in the US has a good word to say for Scott McClellan, Bush’s former press secretary turned critic. The right condemned the disloyalty of his memoir, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What’s Wrong with Washington (PublicAffairs). The left complained that McClellan’s change of heart arrived too late. The old Washington hands shook their heads at a press secretary writing a book at all: FDR’s and Eisenhower’s men took their secrets to their graves—why can’t today’s whippersnappers do the same?
Yet there is something sad and sympathetic about McClellan and his bitter, accusatory memoir. If you ever watched McClellan’s televised confrontations with the savage White House press corps, you probably thought: this is terrible! The man has no business being up there. He looks like a schoolboy trying to retrieve his mittens from a gang of bullies.
McClellan was not alone in being deficient at his job. George W Bush brought most of his core first-term White House team with him from Texas. Except for Karl Rove, these Texans were a strikingly inadequate bunch. Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzales, Karen Hughes, Al Hawkins, Andy Card (the last not a Texan, but a lifelong Bush family retainer) were more like characters from The Office than the people one would expect to find at the pinnacle of the world’s most powerful nation.
That early team was recruited with one paramount consideration in mind: loyalty. Theoretically, it should be possible to combine loyalty with talent, but that did not happen often with the Bush team. Bush demanded loyalty not to a cause or an idea, but to himself personally. He tested that loyalty with constant petty teasing, sometimes verging on the demeaning. (The journalist Robert Draper tells the story of a 1999 campaign strategy meeting at which Bush shut Rove up by ordering him to “hang up my jacket.” The room fell silent in shock—but Rove did it.)
These little abuses would often be followed by unexpected acts of generosity. Yet the combination of the demand for personal loyalty, the bullying and compensatory love-bombing was to weed out strong personalities and to build an inner circle defined by a willingness to accept subordination to the fluctuating needs of a tense, irascible and unpredictable chief.
Had Bush been a more active manager, these subordinated personalities might have done him less harm. But after choosing people he could dominate, he delegated them great power. The people entrusted with the most responsibility were those who most dreaded it—Condoleezza Rice being the most damaging example.
I served in the George W Bush White House in 2001 and 2002, and saw his approach to organisation close up. The defects of the Bush administration originated in conscious design, not the accidents of personality. George W Bush may not have had much foreign policy experience when he ran for president. He may not have had much success in business. But there was one thing he knew intimately: the White House itself. In fact, he probably understood the interior workings of the White House staff system better than any previous president, having served between 1989 and 1993 as an informal deputy chief of staff to his father. (When it became time for John H Sununu to resign as White House chief of staff in 1991, it was George W Bush who delivered the order.) George HW Bush, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman all came to the Oval Office having served as vice-presidents. But nobody before George W Bush had seen the White House from below, had witnessed its petty power games or experienced its operations without the deference paid to a high office holder. And when he won first the Texas governorship and then the presidency, he determined to organise his own office in such a way as to suppress office-politicking as much as possible.
Designing a White House staff, like designing an aircraft, involves trade-offs. If you want speed of decision, you must narrow the number of those involved in the decision—thus sacrificing breadth of information and depth of debate. If you demand single-minded devotion to yourself, you will probably choose people who lack other career options—which is to say, people who are less than supremely able. If you want to recruit the best and the brightest, you will have little choice but to end up with people of strong wills, big egos and intense principles, who may put their beliefs before your interests. The problem of designing an effective political organisation cannot be solved, it can only be finessed.
So here’s one prediction you can bank about the next president, regardless of whether it’s John McCain or Barack Obama. Shortly after he takes the oath of office, you will begin to see stories in the media about the casual informality of his office—and how he makes a point of closely questioning every visitor and briefer. You will hear about the political diversity of his circle of advisers and his insistence on the most detailed and exact information. In this, President Obama or McCain will be conforming to the most basic rule of presidential PR: every administration over-corrects the flaws of the last.
You saw this at the beginning of the George W Bush administration. The outgoing Clinton administration was thought to be too sloppy, too informal and too unethical. So the Bush administration went out of its way to show itself crisp, punctual and correct. No more pizza in the Roosevelt Room! No more staffers wearing shorts and sandals on weekends! No more accepting free lunches from journalist friends!
Ironically, the Clinton administration’s careless ways had in their turn begun as an overreaction to what was perceived in 1993 as the pointlessly rigid rules of the Bush 41 administration. Bush 41’s strict discipline was intended to correct the leaking and backbiting that had filled the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times under Ronald Reagan.
Likewise, Nixon built an ultra-hierarchical White House governed by paranoia that degenerated into lawlessness and then disgrace. So Nixon’s Democratic successor, Jimmy Carter, insisted on organising his White House in exactly the opposite way: Carter had no chief of staff for his first two years and involved himself in almost every aspect of White House management. The result? Another legendary failure, symbolised by the story that Carter at one point found himself deciding who could use the White House tennis courts. And so on through history, probably all the way back to John Adams inwardly congratulating himself on being kinder and gentler than George Washington’s administration.
The problem is not just one of over-reaction. It is that ultimately there can be no fully successful way of organising a White House. This is the inherent tragedy of government. And so, even as we write our postmortems on our disappointment with George W Bush, we can already begin to prepare the postmortems on our opposite disappointments with his successor. In Washington, history does not repeat itself: it reverses itself.
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