Friday, March 31, 2006

Andy and Josh, the Farting Chiefs of Staff

The announcement by President Bush this week that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was stepping down to be replaced by Joshua Bolten did not meet with much approval from the talking heads. The move was almost certainly motivated by calls from numerous political analysts, not to mention Congressional Republicans, that Bush needed to "shake up" his inner circle and inject some fresh political ideas into his Administration and sagging poll numbers.

Unfortunately, Bolten has been around the President as long as Card. For the past three years, he has headed up the President's Office of Management and Budget. Prior to that, he was a Deputy Chief of Staff under Card. Changes in Administration policies – which are what were really wanted here – are not likely to be forthcoming as a result of this change of faces.

In any event, the reviews are in and they are not pretty.

Let us start with Slate magazine's own Mr. Dickerson, who observed, "George Bush built a pond just outside the front door of his Crawford, Texas, home so that he wouldn't have to walk far to fish. This is how he picked his new Chief of Staff, too."

The Washington Post, with a relish for the obvious, notes, "[Bush] did not exactly replace [Card] with a fresh face." The New York Times more bitingly declares, "For months now, people have been urging President Bush to shake up his inner circle and bring in fresh air . . . Mr. Bush opened the window – and in climbed his Budget Director, Joshua Bolten."

"They've reached all the way across the driveway for new blood," agrees John Podesta, who became Bill Clinton's chief of staff in 1998. The big shake up "looked more like a game of musical chairs than a major change in personnel," according to Zachary Coile of the San Francisco Chronicle. And Time magazine describes the choice as "the comfort food of staff changes."

Interestingly, it may be the Louisville Courier-Journal that was most excoriating in its assessment. Its editors suggest that Karl Rove and Vice-President Dick Cheney "are only some of the [other] heads that should roll." One can almost hear them stamp their feet in frustration as they simultaneously lament and admonish, "Andrew Card is not even the logical place to start . . . He certainly better not be the end of it."

At first glance, Bolten does indeed seem to be an obvious Card clone. Look a little deeper and you discover an individual who almost qualifies as a non-conformist by Bushie standards. Bolten is a devout Jew who spends his few off-hours racing down the highway on his prized Harley-Davidson Fat Boy or bowling in the White House alley or banging out tunes in a rock band he named Deficit Attention Disorder. He helped conceive one of the quirkiest and most successful campaign organizations in 2000, Bikers for Bush. During the group's first rally, Bolten rode a newly purchased bike to the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames.

His office features a large portrait of Eisenhower in military uniform, a Harley-Davidson book and a motorcycle menorah on the mantle, and a drawing by his niece, said to be titled "Uncle Josh's Poop Calendar."

While some senior White House staff denied that Bolten was entering his new job with any sort of a mandate, President Bush told an interviewer with CNN en EspaƱol yesterday afternoon that Bolten's accession could result in a lot more movement within the White House. Just yesterday, the hot rumor was that Bolten wants Treasury Secretary John Snow replaced with "someone who can present the Administration's message more forcefully," according to the New York Times.

But look still deeper and you find that Bolten is likely to depart little from Card in the Chief of Staff job, either in basic function or style. Back in 2003, Mike Allen of the Washington Post described Bolten as a "tight-lipped policy technician" and "immersed in detail." He is widely known as a self-effacing Bush loyalist, who is not especially ideological nor a promoter of his own agenda.

That was very much the role of Card. During Bush's first term, he directed the most efficient, tight-lipped, and on-message White House in history but he was not a big influence on Bush. The roles of guru and visionary taken on by many past Chiefs of Staff has always been and continues to be the province of Rove and Cheney in this Administration.

In his CNN interview, Bush stated, "Now Josh's job is to design a White House staff that meets the needs of the President . . . to make sure I get information in a timely fashion so I can make decisions." What that really means is that Bolten, like Card, can be expected to spend much of his time aggressively monitoring and filtering the information flow to Bush. "The President has to have time to eat, sleep and be merry or he'll make angry, grumpy decisions," Card said in a 2004 radio interview.

Card had served in the highly stressful Chief of Staff position longer than any other person except Sherman Adams during the Eisenhower Administration. Card had said several times that he wanted to break Adams's record. Yet it was Card who ultimately approached Bush and suggested that he should step down.

This was probably the final step in damage control on his part, following public disapproval the past year over the war in Iraq, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and most recently the Dubai Ports deal. He recently told the New York Times that people should direct their criticism at him and not the President. "When people are frustrated, they should be frustrated at me," he said. "It's my job."

The most interesting thing about this change is that it may not have been a mere publicity stunt as so many are charging but a legitimate attempt by Bush and his staff to shake things up. However, the Administration inevitably undercut itself in these efforts by its natural tendency never to challenge the President but rather keep him cocooned in a comforting circle of known and trusted advisors that offers few doubt or dissent regarding Bush's most cherished preconceptions. Bush loyalists are like sponges, attempting to soak up all culpability so that none ever reaches the President, either from his perspective or that of the American public.

Joshua Bolten seems to understand this aspect of his new job already. Among the other treasures in his eclectic office, he keeps a copy of the children's book Walter, the Farting Dog on his coffee table.

In the story, Walter is a sad-eyed mongrel adopted from the local pound by a kind family. Alas, he seems doomed to return to that unhappy place because of his revolting habit of passing gas constantly, no matter what he eats. He is saved on his last night with the family when burglars break into their home and are driven away empty-handed by the unbearable odor. Yet one family member loved Walter long before he became a genuine hero – "If Uncle Irv let one slip, he just went and stood near Walter."

This, I suspect, is the lesson within the book of which Bolten wants to remind himself. Uncle Irv is President Bush. Bolten's role, like Card before him, is to stand around and be Walter, the Farting Chief of Staff.

As a final thought, two past Washington notables passed away this week. Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger died at age eighty-eight from pneumonia. He was often lambasted by some for overseeing more than $2 trillion in military spending – the biggest peacetime increase in U.S. history. In addition, former Press Secretary and political adviser Lyn Nofziger died at age eighty-one from cancer. He also was frequently criticized for his blunt and irreverent style.

Both of these men served during the Reagan Administration. In light of the other events this past week, the news of their passing makes me nostalgic again over Ronald Reagan for other than the usual reasons. Now there was an Executive Branch that really understood what a "change in status" needs to entail for a White House staff member.

Posted by The_Bell. To reply to this post, click HERE.