By nominating National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to become secretary of state and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to become attorney general, President Bush is sending a clear message. He intends to keep tight rein over foreign policy and the war on terror during his second term.
Second terms can be treacherous, even for presidents who win large popular mandates. Ronald Reagan was re-elected in a 49-state landslide in 1984, but the Iran-Contra scandal tarnished his last years in office. Bill Clinton carried 31 states, plus Washington, D.C., in his re-election bid in 1996, but was impeached (though not convicted) for lying under oath about his relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky. And, of course, Richard Nixon left office in disgrace two years after he won 60 percent of the vote in his re-election bid, once his role in approving the 1972 Watergate break-in was revealed.
Bush’s strong management style, moral rectitude and high ethical standards make similar imbroglios unthinkable, but the president’s decision to place trusted loyalists in the most important positions in his new administration shows he’s leaving little to chance. In Rice and Gonzales, Bush has chosen insiders who were part of his team long before he came to Washington.
You get the sense that he trusts them completely. He won’t have to worry that they will be leaking stories to the media to make themselves look good — and the president less so — if things don’t go their way. Nor will he have to worry that his appointees are not on the same page as he is when it comes to policy objectives.
In different ways, both their predecessors failed to inspire similar comfort levels from the president. Colin Powell came into George W. Bush’s administration larger than life. Powell commanded more respect in many circles than the new commander-in-chief — as a hostile press never tired of reminding Americans. This had to rub the new president the wrong way. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush gained almost universal respect, and the power relationship between the two shifted, but the damage had already been done. And it didn’t help later on that Powell let his skepticism about the Iraq war become public.
Ashcroft showed considerably more loyalty than Powell, but his aloof demeanor may have been an impediment to forging a close personal relationship with the president. You can imagine the president kicking back to enjoy a football game with Rice or confiding secrets to Gonzales, but it’s hard to envision the ever-serious and taciturn Ashcroft in similar settings.
Critics will argue that the president’s appointment of Rice and Gonzales could present problems because they are too close to the president. Already Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has warned that Rice may lack the proper “independence” to be a good secretary of state. Such criticism is wrong-headed. We don’t elect Cabinet members. They have no claim to independence from the presidents who appoint them — which doesn’t mean they are mere yes-men or women. Precisely because Rice and Gonzales have earned the president’s complete trust, they can be free to speak their minds when they disagree with him, and he will listen.
President Bush has run a tighter ship than most recent presidents, clearly running policy from the White House rather than letting it devolve to the agencies. There’s always a danger in every administration that political appointees will become insular and arrogant, but neither Rice nor Gonzales seem prone to those character flaws. Both come from humble backgrounds — which may not be a perfect insurance policy against self-importance, but it helps.
Given the dangerous world in which we now live and the tough fight ahead, not only in Iraq but elsewhere in the war on terror, the president must be able to count on his top aides. He’s chosen well for himself and the country in these first two important picks.