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Bush's Lightning Rod
uploaded : Wednesday 21st May 2003 at 01:07
by : Sheri Wild
I should explain that I'm an old political junkie from way back and worked a campaign or
two in my time, and even interviewed President Ford once. I won't say how old I was!
We admirers of Rumsfeld will simply have to come to terms with a few facts that are unpleasant to realize if you are a "fan" of a political figure. One is that he considers it his job (and is acting on it constantly) to be a very public voice for a certain direction within the Administration. Just as Colin Powell's job is to advocate for a very different position. This is true not only because of their different constituencies, but also because they are both trying to do the very best job they can for a President managing crises who absolutely requires people who are willing to be forward in their thinking--not to cower and cover themselves in meetings.
You have here a Defense Secretary who is more than usually willing to go out on a limb and "draw fire" for certain positions--all the more so because he is in the unique position of having no further political ambitions himself anymore. Thus, he is quite aware that
what he says cannot hurt him PERSONALLY in the way it would someone with the idea of running for office lingering in the back of his
mind. I often get the feeling that Rumsfeld is saying some things that Condi Rice would like to say but would find politically damaging, and that perhaps even Colin Powell might believe except that he could never say them given his position.
It is perfectly okay and quite right for him to do this. In many ways, the Vice President mirrors this process, although being the President's running mate in 2004 means that he will have a lot of quotes come up and bite him in the butt--not to mention his affiliation with Halliburton, which he can do nothing about at this point. Rummy has the job of a yapping terrier, whose job it is to run along the fence and bark at everything that moves, until someone
comes to investigate that threat. It's how he sees his job and he considers it the best way to serve this president, who needs to hear
about everything in a direct and forthright manner.
It is quite natural that anybody doing this is going to become a lightning rod for a certain type of backlash. This is not only to be
expected, it is also right and proper that this happen! We all would prefer that only thoughtful, sensible criticism attach to public
argument, but since that is not the world we live in (nor has it ever been!), we just have to take the good with the bad in all cases. The
values this republic hold dear depend absolutely on constant questioning of officials. Rummy is going to come in for a certain amount of personally directed criticism, deserved or not, simply by virtue of the fact that he works the system in the way that he does-- no holds barred, teeth bared, ears laid back--and because he is given to provocative pronouncements. He behaves as if he always expects the results this generates, and indeed he SEEKS them. He considers that he is doing his best possible job for his country by being provocative and raising objections and concerns.
What is interesting to me is President Bush's reliance on just that quality. As a political junkie and a political science student
of long standing, let me say this: you have to go back a long, long way to find a President of the United States from either party, in
any era, who is so fundamentally willing to tolerate disagreement and swirling opposition among his cabinet. Indeed, President Bush seems
to relish and to seek this opposition! It takes a fundamentally confident and self-possessed man to occupy that office without coating himself with padding against REAL, HONEST opinion. President Bush the elder once said that he had great difficulty soliciting views from people who didn't go out of their way to sugar-coat them in his presence. He said he could watch people get shorter and shorter as they came into the Oval Office.
Well, it is a constant source of media irritation that this cabinet often not only disagrees with itself in front of the President, but does so openly and often publicly. The reason for this is that the media the world over have bought hook, line, and sinker into the
bromide that George W. Bush is an idiot, and that a group of his advisors who fundamentally disagree with one another must therefore
make it impossible for him to make a sensible decision or craft a workable policy--because he can't possibly know what to do without help! The fact is, this President seeks, generates, and tolerates division within his group of principal advisors and uses that division to find an honest path. What a rich and honest source of
true opinion that is, rather than the groupthink that encourages people to reduce everything to palatable blandness and say what they
think he wants to hear!
The truth is, this president is much brighter and more politically astute than he has ever been given credit for, and he is better at
management than anyone realizes. No matter how far out on a limb his cabinet members have gone and no matter how much counterargument
there is among his cabinet, you never have anything coming out of the White House (except by those unnamed "officials", whom I always
discount) that indicates the President wishes Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell, et al would cut it out. He's willing to live with the good cop/bad cop routines that result from Cheney and especially Rumsfeld acting as provocateurs. He lets them run ideas up flagpoles, often in public, and then he makes a firm decision and stands immovably upon on that ground. All he seems to expect is that, once his decision is made, people stop trying to sway him further. He seems to ignore petty beaurocratic squabbling at the secondary level about who's right or most competent or whatever.
I suspect, and will continue to suspect, that a good deal of the griping and moaning at the State Department, which is occurring at a
level or two down from Colin Powell, is simply the effect of the President's trying to make certain moves that cause State some dyspepsia--and that he will ignore this fallout and keep pushing.
It's a replay of the Reagan era, except there is no outspoken Jean Kirkpatrick at the U.N. The effect, however, is the same, and the hardest thing to judge is Powell's view of this. He may think a lot of things that people are not willing to attribute to him, or he may be exactly the caricature of a perfect moderate that people have made him out to be. Actually, it doesn't really matter--what matters is
what the President does.
In this, Rumsfeld is absolutely right also to be careful in what he says at times. I note that he only goes out on a limb if he seems to suspect he has the President's blessing for some of what he says--for example, much of what he has said about transformation, and "Old Europe". At other times, he will provoke right to a certain line
without going over it--he knows exactly where it is. He is not a stupid man, which means he will always take care to point out, correctly, that it's the President's decision. Rumsfeld is aware
that he is a lightning rod, that certain criticisms will be unfounded but expected because he is vocal and visible, and that he will have to retreat and attack, retreat and attack, thrust and parry, and at times disappear. The times when he is careful to invoke the President's authority are the times when 1) The President is making a decision, 2) he has become aware that people are hanging on his every word for possibly the wrong reasons and it is time to remind people he is not the President, 3) he is being extremely careful what he says and how he says it because it involves an issue of great sensitivity, and 4) when he is parroting a line the Administration has adopted as a result of the President's decision.
I guess what I'm saying is that we need to have greater confidence in Rumsfeld's judgment of his position relative to public uproar and
press attack at times. He's an old, old hand at this give and take, and if anything he's more peckish than he would have been in his forties and fifties precisely because he is without concern at this stage for what his political future will bring. I imagine he and the President have discussed this a time or two, and he wouldn't be taking the tack he does if he did not feel confident that he would not be shot down. If anything, some of what he says is intended to take the heat off the President himself, to give him room to maneuver. And why not? It's part of a cabinet member's job!
And have a little confidence in the President himself, eh? This guy is not as obtuse as his father could be at times. I respected the elder Bush, but if anything he was too accommodating of too many things to ever have adopted some of the firm stances his son has been willing to adopt and abide by. This president has a lot of backbone and is willing to take an awful lot of heat, no matter what. He knows perfectly well the value of a cabinet member (or two, or ten)
who also demonstrates a willingness to take a lot of heat for a good reason. By this point, most Presidents would have flattened Rumsfeld
by this point, or moved him elsewhere, simply because he has become a lightning rod! This president seems unusually tough about that issue
and he cuts Rumsfeld a lot of slack.