Where have all the politicians gone?

The exit of George W. Bush's aides reaffirms a trend that has been enforced by history - that the seventh year of an American president is marked by a rush for the door.

  • With the exit of Tony Snow, US President George W. Bush's press secretary, a historical jinx is reaffirmedImage Credit:Reuters
  • US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently announced his resignation, effective from September 17. Image Credit:AP
  • Harriet Miers, longtime confidante of President George W. Bush, stepped down to return to private life. Image Credit:Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post
Weekend Review

One by one they are going, going … gone. Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove. Harriet Miers, John Bolton and Scott McClellan. Last week, even Tony Snow, McClellan's short-lived replacement as press secretary, announced that he, too, is headed for an exit. What is happening to George W. Bush's White House?

These departures follow an earlier wave of changes that saw many of the administration's most prominent figures leave, sometimes in far from ideal circumstances. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz (whose subsequent fall from grace in his short tenure as head of the World Bank is a separate matter). White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

The exodus has become so pronounced that editorial cartoonists have lately begun to focus their attention, tongues-in-cheek, on President George W. Bush's dog Barney.

Beating around Bush

One recent drawing portrayed the scottish terrier striding across the White House lawn waving a haughty goodbye to the president and bidding him good riddance. Another shows dog and owner facing each other from opposite ends of an otherwise empty cabinet table — name cards for Gonzales, Rove, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Miers and Bolton separating them.

As Bush intones: "I have all the confidence in the world in the job you're doing, Barney", the dog looks panicked and says to himself: "I'm toast!"

Of the inner core of senior officials who arrived with the president in Washington in January 2001, few remain beyond Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the obscure, if influential, Clay Johnson. The latter is at present the number two official at the Office of Management and Budget but like Gonzales, Rove and Karen Hughes — who heads American public diplomacy efforts around the world — his ties with the president are deep. The two have known each other since they were teenagers.

The administration's opponents, notably Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, are trying mightily to find political advantage in all of this. When questioned about his own conspicuously thin political resume, Obama routinely replies that the Bush team's failures are proof that experience per se is an overrated commodity.

For their part, Republicans have taken to criticising the Democrats and the news media for focussing on the departures, charging that both seem more concerned with bringing down the president and his aides than with getting anything accomplished.

As is often the case with American politics, all of this requires a bit of perspective.

Historically speaking, the seventh year of any American president's tenure tends to be marked by a rush for the door.

To understand why, it is important to understand two particular elements of the American system. The first is that presidents are limited to two terms in office. The second is that every new president wants to put his own team in place — even presidents who come from the same party as their predecessors.

Every new president arrives in Washington with a group of aides, political hangers-on and old friends (Bill Clinton's first Chief Of Staff, Mack McLarty, had known Clinton since kindergarten). Vaulted to the top level of national politics, some of these people excel and others, inevitably, do not.

Two-phased exists

The weeding-out process is often in two stages. Sometime in every administration's second year, a few of the newly powerful are brought down because of ethics charges (Jimmy Carter's Budget Director, Burt Lance; and Ronald Reagan's first National Security Adviser, Richard Allen, are cases in point). Others simply find Washington to be a less enticing place than they first thought.

Those who stay often find that, should the president be re-elected, a second winnowing takes place around year seven. The difference is that while this too involves some scandals, it is just as often a function of self-interest.

One of the strange truisms of American politics is the degree to which every president, once re-elected, becomes captive to misbehaviour and wince-inducing incompetence of his aides. Two decades ago, the Iran-Contra scandal exploded into public view in the days after the 1986 elections that marked the mid-point of Reagan's second term. The fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton's impeachment led to a similar exodus.

In Bush's case, it is soon-to-be-ex Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who has come to embody incompetence and mendacity on an operatic scale in an administration that is now routinely charged with both — even by some of its supporters.

Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton is another case in point. One of the most divisive figures in the administration, Bolton managed to hold the UN job for about a year through a procedural quirk known as a recess appointment. He departed after Bush's Republican party lost control of Congress, a development that ended any hope he might win the senate confirmation required to keep the UN job beyond the beginning of this year.

But many other officials are heading back to private life because they sense greater rewards are on offer if they leave now instead of sticking around till January 2009.

Looking beyond government, these men and women see that their market value is as high now as it is ever going to get. Today, they are well-connected insiders. By the end of next year, they run the risk of looking like slightly desperate job-seekers.

The clearest recent example of this is Karl Rove. Known as Bush's closest aide, he stands to make a lot of money writing a book and returning to the ranks of highly paid political consultants. For such persons, access and prestige are their stock in trade. In Washington, these are directly related to the contacts one has (or is perceived to have) with those in power. And, after the next election, one's highly placed friends may no longer be highly placed.

A little-noticed subtext to this is that many lower-level political appointees will remain in an administration through its waning months precisely because high-level departures create high-level vacancies.

It might seem that a stint in power so brief that one barely learns the layout of the office would be unsatisfying, but for the ambitious it can be a key to future success. The secret lies in understanding that whether seeking a post-government job or a higher position in a subsequent administration, people ask how important your last job was, not how long you held it.

Thus, it is far better to leave Washington and the State Department having been an Assistant Secretary rather than someone's assistant.

Take the case of Frank Carlucci. An obscure, relatively non-political technocrat for most of his career, he ran the Defence Department for 14 months as the Reagan administration drew to close. Ever since, he has been a "former secretary of defence" a title that commands immense respect in the private sector and lends prestige to his present job as a principle at the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm with lots of investments in … the defence sector.

The years following Donald Rumsfeld's first stint at the Pentagon during the Ford administration are another instance of a very lucrative private career being jump-started by a relatively brief period of cabinet service.

Perhaps the best example, however, is Lawrence Eagleberger. A talented diplomat and long-time Washington insider, Eagleberger is always introduced as a former secretary of state. Rarely is it mentioned that he actually held that title for a mere six weeks as the first president Bush's administration drew to a close.

In fairness, it should be noted that this sort of thing has a very long history in the US. Edwin Stanton served as Attorney General for barely three months in 1860-61, but that credential was a key element in his later appointment as Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln.

As this implies, money often plays as large a role as politics in these calculations, though it is rarely acknowledged by anyone involved.

So, in measuring future prospects, outgoing Bush Press Secretary Tony Snow deserves credit for honesty. In announcing his departure, the spokesman could easily have cited a desire to spend more time with his family (the most time-honoured of all excuses for an uncomfortable-looking exit from public life). He might also have said he needs to concentrate on his personal battle with cancer.

Instead, Snow dismissed both of these excuses, saying flatly that he wants to make more money. If that sounds odd coming from a man paid $168,000 per year to spin the press, bear in mind that Snow's previous job as a TV host at Fox News almost certainly paid a lot more.

Considering that median household income in the US is about $48,500, it takes a certain brazenness to plead poverty at more than three times that figure.

That may make Snow the most honest man in the administration when it comes to describing the reasons for his departure, but one can rest assured he will not be the last to go.

Gordon Robison's column on American politics appears every alternate Wednesday in Gulf News.

The departed

Some of the more prominent figures to exit the Bush administration in recent months include:

Karl Rove – It is a sign of how important Rove has been to the Bush administration. Despite holding the relatively innocuous title of Deputy Chief of Staff, he had something approaching universal name recognition and his resignation announcement was worldwide news. Rove is, first and foremost, a campaign strategist. Like all great campaign managers, he rose to prominence by combining a close relationship with a successful candidate (Bush) with a technical mastery of the campaign process (in his case of direct mail – the art of building a base of political support through fundraising via the post). The Democrats' pursuit of Rove bordered on the obsessive (comparisons with Moby Dick were not uncommon) and served mainly to increase his legend. He can be expected to spend the next year or so writing a book before returning to the field of campaign consulting and probably commanding an even higher fee than he did before he latched onto George W. Bush.

Alberto Gonzales – A disastrous tenure as Attorney General (where he seemed to be out of his depth almost from day one) has obscured the fact that until a few years ago Alberto Gonzales was one of those uniquely American success stories, an example of why so many people around the world want to move to the US. Born to extremely poor immigrant parents, he worked his way up the ladder, earned a law degree from Harvard and became a State Supreme Court Justice in Texas. Had he stopped there, he might have been an inspiring figure rather than an object of ridicule. As White House Counsel (essentially, the top lawyer on the president's private staff) in Bush's first term, he concocted increasingly forced justifications for the administration's "war on terror" policies. This could be forgiven on the grounds that finding legal rationalisations for whatever the president wants to do is, to some degree, the White House counsel's job. Attorneys general, however, are supposed to be a brake on presidential ambition, not its enabler. Gonzales never seemed to grasp this distinction and his reputation has suffered accordingly.

Harriet Miers – Every administration includes someone like Harriet Miers: an unexciting local politico who comes to Washington with the president only to be devoured by the media and the Washington establishment after a misstep on the national stage. In her case, the misstep was letting Bush nominate her for the Supreme Court despite her complete lack of judicial experience. After the debacle of her Supreme Court nomination, Miers stayed on as White House Counsel (a job in which she was Gonzales's successor) for nearly 18 months, returning to private life early this year. She has been back in the news in recent months because she appears to have played a central role in the controversial sacking of eight US attorneys.

Andrew Card – The White House Chief of Staff until 2006, Card, a longtime aide to both presidents Bush, was among the first members of the inner circle to return to the private sector. It should be noted that five-plus years is an unusually long tenure for a chief of staff. The job is, in some ways, more demanding than the presidency itself. It is a testament to Card's political acumen that despite having been a key player during some of the administration's worst periods, he appears to have emerged from the Bush White House with his reputation relatively intact.

Tony Snow – One must give the former Fox News anchor credit for this: he actually appeared to believe what he was saying. As he stood before the assembled media, Snow's predecessor, Scott McClellan, often seemed to be thinking ‘and how, exactly, did I get myself into this mess?' Even that was an improvement on the open contempt with which Bush's first press secretary, Ari Fleischer, regarded the media. What Snow understood is that few people are more convinced of their own greatness than the reporters who cover the White House and that feeding the media's collective ego can by itself win the White House (or at least the press secretary) a certain degree of sympathy. He knew this because he came from the Washington media establishment to which, it appears, he will now return.