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What It's Like
What It's Like
By Paul Begala
From: TPMCafe Special Guests
Tom Petty was wrong. The waiting is not the hardest part.
Sure, all of what Eric Alterman dubbed "the punditocracy" has a severe case of indictus interruptus, but for President Bush and his White House staff, the worst is yet to come. To be sure, waiting on a decision to indict is an exquisite form of torture. But what lies ahead is worse. If special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald does choose to indict one or more senior Bush White House officials, they will be the first top White House aides to be indicted in a decade and a half.
This is when a White House staffer earns his pay. The pressure of a federal criminal investigation - especially one in the media spotlight - is bone-crushing. My guess is that the strain is taking a gruesome toll. Already we hear rumors of President Bush exploding at his aides, at the President blaming Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, and anyone else in sight for his woes.
This I know first hand: when The Boss explodes like that, there are two kinds of aides -- those who fight and those who flee. When he came to Washington, Mr. Bush surrounded himself with tough-minded people who seemed not to be afraid to stand up to him. But now his team is loaded with weak-kneed toadies, and Mr. Bush is home alone. Karl Rove, of course, is fending off a potential indictment. His prodigious brain has not entertained another thought in months. (That's why, I suspect, some months back Rove popped off and said liberals wanted to give terrorists psychotherapy after 9/11. It was a loopy, stupid, and distinctly un-Rovian, meltdown - the first public sign that the pressure was causing Karl to crack.)
Oct 26, 2005 -- 11:07:27 PM EST
What of the rest of Team Bush? Karen Hughes is at the State Department, as is Condi Rice. Al Gonzalez has decamped for Justice, and fellow Austinite Margaret Spellings is at the Department of Education. Harriet Miers is fighting a losing battle to avoid becoming a permanent punch line. Ari Fleischer is selling books and dispensing sage advice to corporations. And Mary Matalin is busy raising her girls and rallying the troops from the outside.
The exodus and incapacity were inevitable; replacing Bush's stand-up guys and gals with suck-ups and sycophants was not. After he was re-elected, with the clouds of scandal still all `round, Bill Clinton lured John Podesta back to the White House. Podesta, who is as tough as a bar of iron, became deputy chief of staff, and then chief of staff. He was indispensable in maintaining the focus of both the President and his staff. When Abner Mikva left, Clinton recruited a new White House counsel, Charles Ruff, who was strong and steady, and put together the most impressive team of lawyers ever to grace the West Wing. When Mike McCurry stepped down, he was replaced by bulldog Joe Lockhart. Clinton also promoted Rahm Emanuel and Doug Sosnik, veteran campaigners, and convinced me to leave my beloved Austin to become Counselor to the President. Not because I was possessed of some special wisdom or insight, but because I knew him well and was not afraid to give him bad news.
Mr. Bush would do well to augment his current staff, a C-Team if ever there was one, with some stronger characters. But to read the Bush-Miers correspondence is to gain a disturbing insight into Mr. Bush's personality: he likes having his ass kissed. Ms. Miers' cards and letters to the then-Governor of Texas belong in the Brown-Nosers Hall of Fame. You can be sure the younger and less experienced Bush White House aides are even more obsequious. The last thing this President wants is the first thing he needs: someone to slap his spoiled, pampered, trust-funded, plutocratic, never-worked-a-day-in-his-life cheek and make him face the reality of his foul-ups.
And so they wait. And they sniff the royal throne. They tell the Beloved Leader he's the victim of a partisan plot (although how the Bush CIA, which referred the Plame case for prosecution, became ground zero of Democratic liberalism escapes me). They assure him all is well. But all is not well. People are looking over their shoulders. The smart ones have stopped taking notes in meetings. The very smart ones have stopped using email for all but the most pedestrian communications. And the smartest ones have already obtained outside counsel.
When a White House is under siege, no one wants to talk to anyone. Literally, anything you say can and will be used against you. When you're in a meeting and you see one of your colleagues taking notes, you start to wonder how long it will be before you're interrogated based on her notes. Maybe she's doodling. Or maybe she's digging your grave. The mind tries to focus on the task at hand, but the grand jury is never far from your thoughts.
Compared to these folks, I had it easy. I'd never met Monica Lewinsky, had no knowledge of the affair, which took place when I was living in Austin, and I knew that neither I nor any of my colleagues were in Ken Starr's perverse crosshairs. The Fitzgerald investigation is very different. It's not about the President's extracurricular activities. It's about the essence of how the White House works - and the suggestion that this White House has become deeply corrupt.
If the waiting is as painful for the Bushies as I suspect it is, it's only because they know how terrible the toll will be when the truth comes out.
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