The White House Needs a Fool

We need a fool in the White House. No, I’ve not joined the leftist Bush-is-an-idiot crowd. The president is a smart man, but he’s in deep trouble. And no one in the White House seems willing to tell him why, which is where an official fool — or White House jester, if you prefer — would come in handy. In the Middle Ages, the court fool was often the only person who could point out the king’s foibles and live to tell about it.

No less than some medieval castle, the White House can become a haven for yes-men (and women) in any administration. Toadyism is an occupational hazard in such a rarified environment, and few are willing to risk their own status and power to tell the boss he’s making a big mistake. The latest flap over Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers is a perfect example.

Apparently no one stepped forward to warn the president what a monumentally bad idea he’d come up with when he selected Miers over dozens of other, better-qualified candidates. Karl Rove might have done so in the past, but he’s too busy worrying about his own fate in the Valerie Plame leak investigation and may even have lost some of the president’s confidence for not admitting his role in the leak earlier. Mrs. Bush might have sounded a cautionary note about the Miers nomination — except that, according to some sources, she was the one who suggested it in the first place. White House chief of staff Andy Card has the president’s trust, but he has never demonstrated a willingness to challenge his boss, not least when the president asked him to vet the Miers nomination.

So that left the president on his own, to go with his gut and never look back. And one thing we know about this president is that he doesn’t like to admit a mistake.

Instead of listening to what conservatives are actually saying about the Miers nomination, the White House strategy is to attack the critics. We are suddenly the enemy: elitists, sexists, disloyal, and don’t really represent anyone anyway.

There is no one in the White House who has the nerve to tell the president that he should be worried when Democratic Sen. Harry Reid is more enthusiastic about his nominee than the editors of National Review.

And it’s not just the Miers mishap. This White House seems more isolated from the larger world than most. The president brags he doesn’t read newspapers. The initial response to Hurricane Katrina suggests he rarely watches television news either. When the president ventures out of the White House bubble, it’s usually to return to Crawford or to address a safe, administration-friendly audience.

With Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress, the president doesn’t even have to meet regularly with members of the opposition party. President Reagan, for example, forged a friendly relationship with one of his chief adversaries, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, but you get no hint that President Bush has done the same. Admittedly, the political atmosphere in Washington has grown more toxic in the last 20 years — and Democrats are, I believe, largely to blame.

President Bush came to office promising to change the climate, but quickly gave up, simply insulating himself from having to deal with it.

It is one thing to cut yourself off from people who don’t share your values and aspirations, and quite another to push aside your most faithful allies because you don’t like what they have to say on an important issue. The president has surrounded himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear. It’s a dangerous practice. As the Fool reminds King Lear in Shakespeare’s play:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm.

The president faces rough seas in the days ahead. He’d be wise to heed the Fool’s warning.