Speed Kills: Bush Needs an Improved Rapid Response Approach

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s rapid-response team in Little Rock had two words emblazoned on the backs of their tee-shirts: Speed Kills.

In the modern media age, they were right; getting your story out quickly often determines whether your story gets told at all.

The ’92 Clinton team became so adept at this that they once released a response to Bush’s convention speech before he uttered his first word. Now that’s quick!

In fairness to George W. Bush, it’s harder to respond quickly when you are the President of the United States of America and have the unfortunate disadvantage of actually having to run the country (Clinton pulled the convention speech stunt before being elected).

As President, any hastily uttered word could have major international implications. So it’s no surprise that in politics there is often an inverse relationship between the speed in which you can respond and the importance of the office you hold. It is also harder to worry about petty PR issues when you are responsible for the full-time demands of the nation.

But the need to respond rapidly is just as important in governance as it is in a political campaign. And often, the stakes are even higher.

The Bush team has long been thought of as masters of political gamesmanship. And the fact is, Bush didn’t have this problem in his first four years as president. So what is the cause of this recent lapse in political acumen?

Some have speculated that the problem is that Karl Rove has been distracted by other issues, including the Plame case. Others speculate that, with no re-election to worry about, some in the White House have simply gotten sloppy.

In the late 1980s, when the Reagan Administration became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, many observers blamed the scandal on the fact that James Baker, Ed Meese, and Mike Deaver — Reagan’s long-time confidants — were no longer at his side.

But that can hardly be the case with Bush. In fact, could the opposite be true? Could his problem be that his long-time advisors are simply too tired to be on top of things?

Sunday’s Washington Post quotes former press secretary, Ari Fleisher, regarding this question (he is a rare example of a top Bush staffer who left after one term):

"My sense is the people who are over there now are working with a very pronounced double-edged sword: they have been there from the beginning, they are experienced, knowledgeable and they know how things work and to get things done — but they are tired."

When you examine the history of modern Chiefs of Staff, Fleisher’s analysis seems plausible.

Of the modern two-term presidents, Dwight Eisenhower had two Chiefs of Staff, Richard Nixon had two, and both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton each had four.

Even recent one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush had more Chiefs of Staff in four years than the younger Bush has had in six (And Jimmy Carter didn’t even have a Chief of Staff until 1979).

In fairness, some past presidential aides didn’t leave because they were tired. In some cases they were forced out by scandal or (as in the case of Don Regan) they were fired.

It is a tribute to President Bush that he was able to hire people he could work with from day one. Bush believes in loyalty and in surrounding himself with close aides. Based on their longevity, it is clear that most of his picks were very good. But the question remains: Is it time to bring in some fresh faces?

Working a job for six years is not necessarily going to burn you out — until you factor in the stress and long-hours these particular jobs demand.

A January 5, 2005, Washington Post article described Andy Card’s schedule this way: "He wakes at 4:20 each morning, commonly stays at work until 10 p.m. and spends most weekends at his office or at Camp David with the POTUS."

That is a pretty rigorous schedule for anybody, much less a man in his late fifties. The average term of service for a White House Chief of Staff is about two and a half years. Card is working on his sixth.

I’m not implying that Andy Card is responsible for the mishandling of recent events. Rather, I am using him as one example of many Bush staffers who have been working a stressful job for six years.

Whether or not it is time to bring in some fresh faces is a question I’m not qualified to answer. The President gets the final call on that one. But it’s something he should at least consider.

As an added bonus, replacing some of his long-serving staff would not only have the affect of bringing in some refreshed reinforcements, it would also serve to help change the tone, which the press might like. I sometimes suspect Bush is in some regards playing a game of chicken with the press, in which he sticks with his people merely to prove a point.

Regardless of what the cause is, the Bush White House needs to do a better job of rapidly responding to issues before they become a crisis.

Let’s print some new tee-shirts for the White House staff to wear: Speed Kills!