The moderate who wasn't there

Christine Todd Whitman can cry all she wants, but today's GOP is not her party. And she has no one but herself to blame for that.

Published January 27, 2005 8:00AM (EST)

You wouldn't know it from the rather whiny title of her new book -- "It's My Party, Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America" -- but there was a time not so long ago when Christine Todd Whitman was being called the future of the Republican Party.

The GOP, groggy from the loss of the presidency after 12 years of dominance, certainly needed a face-lift. The ravening beast that had always coiled within the dapper bosom of the Reagan presidency had burst forth during the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. The Reagan-era slogan "It's Morning in America" had given way to "It's Payback Time, Liberal Scum." When she became New Jersey's first woman governor in 1993, Whitman looked like a bellwether back to the sensible middle way -- a moderate Republican who was pro-choice, talked a good game about fiscal discipline, and seemed accepting of gays. Her direct, plain-spoken manner was immensely appealing in person. Pundits talked of "Whitman Republicans" rescuing the GOP from its extreme right contingent; Whitman herself seemed destined for bigger things than the governor's mansion.

That was then, this is now. Bush's narrow victory in November completed the Republican Party's transformation from a vehicle for principled conservatives into a debt-fueled pimpmobile for crony capitalists and religious hucksters. Rockefeller Republicans -- a tag Whitman has proudly embraced -- are second only to the Clintons in the party demonology. The tax code is about to be revamped to allow further looting of the public coffers, and culture-war commandos are drawing a bead on everything from Social Security to SpongeBob Squarepants. And even as Bush and his backers are doing doughnuts on the National Mall, Whitman steps up to ask, with a cluelessness that borders on the sublime: "Will the GOP interpret the president's reelection victory as a mandate, even a requirement, to continue to cater to the demands of the far right on a series of key wedge issues?"

If Whitman really thinks this was ever an open question, voters are entitled to wonder why she should ever be taken seriously again as a political candidate. For that matter, we should all ask if Whitman even believes her own words. She was, after all, co-chair of Bush's reelection campaign in New Jersey, so none of what's happened in the past two months could have been much of a surprise. Nor could she have feigned shock when "It's My Party, Too" drew advance ridicule from right-wingers on the Internet. "Earth to Christie: We won," was all one New Jersey Republican had to say to the Star-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper, when asked about the book. The GOP has become comfortable with its inner troglodyte -- in fact, it embraces the lil' fanged bugger. This rather thuggish organization that loves to rule but refuses to govern is not Whitman's party anymore. To the extent that she helped make this transformation possible by putting a pleasant face on the party's ugly excesses in the 1990s, Whitman has earned her irrelevance.

Christie Whitman has long been a puzzle to New Jersey residents, and "It's My Party, Too" will give them plenty of company. Whether as a rallying cry for moderates of both parties, or as an argument for Whitman's continuing value to Republicans (or Democrats), the book is almost comically unconvincing. The hard-liners who now control the GOP are laughing off Whitman's warning that they are alienating the majority of voters. Campaign 2004 showed their mastery of the undemocratic art of fracturing the opposition, pumping up the base and confusing the issues with a blizzard of lies -- see the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The fact that "moderate" Republicans like Whitman were willing to play loyal soldiers in this fight leaves us with the question of what good they are to anyone.

Middle-of-the-road Democrats (and anyone with a memory of recent history) will be offended by the gross distortions and errors of omission swaddled within the book's somnolent Chamber of Commerce banalities about compromise and negotiation. "I joined the administration cautiously optimistic that the extreme bitterness of the Florida recount -- in which actual fights had broken out at one polling place -- and the Supreme Court decision on the election could be put behind us," Whitman writes in her opening chapter. But, alas, "the Democrats showed only a limited interest in working cooperatively." How much dissembling can be packed into one sentence? I don't recall anything about fistfights, but I do know the Republicans sent a handpicked mob of party operatives to shut down a legal recount. Whitman's schoolmarm tone tries to turn the theft of the presidency, aided and abetted by the Supreme Court, into a playground shoving match, with Democrats painted as the sulking losers. And by no stretch of the imagination can the shellshocked lassitude of the Democrats following that debacle be considered resistance.

Every page of "It's My Party, Too" is drenched in speechwriter chloroform -- many readers will feel their eyelids fluttering from the very first sentence: "We stand at a historic juncture in American politics . . ." But it's when her writing is at its dullest that Whitman is prone to try to slip a whopper past the reader. She endorses the idea of reducing greenhouse gases, then calls it "a goal President Bush also supports." She talks of making government accountable to the citizenry, yet as governor she eliminated the Office of the Public Advocate, a highly effective tool for keeping politicians honest. Looking back on the infamous 1996 photo of her patting down a randomly chosen man during a police-led tour of Camden, Whitman writes: "As soon as I touched the young man, who was African American, I realized I'd made a mistake. I had no business 'fake frisking' him." After looking at that photo and Whitman's gee-this-is-such-fun grin as she humiliates the man, I find it hard to believe Whitman regretted anything except the fact that the photo came to light.

How, at this late date, shall we identify the elusive, yeti-like creature known as the moderate Republican? Whitman herself invites horselaughs whenever she cites fellow travelers on the great middle way. On the Republican side, she brightly offers Tom Ridge, whose blatant pimping of terror alerts whenever Bush's poll numbers looked too shaky helped turn the Department of Homeland Security into a reliable source of material for Jay Leno and David Letterman. On the Democratic side, even more astonishingly, Whitman tosses her bouquet to Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, whose foam-flecked rant before last year's GOP national convention had even case-hardened culture warriors calling for a tranquilizer rifle and a net.

In Whitman's case, success has been chiefly a matter of personal style and good timing. She caught incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley loafing through his 1990 reelection campaign and used her narrower-than-expected defeat to leverage influence. She won the keys to the governor's mansion in 1993 by playing (moderately) to a statewide anti-tax tantrum. When the GOP won control of the House in 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich picked her to deliver the response to President Clinton's State of the Union address. Even at a time when Gingrich and his minions were bellowing like puffed-up Genghis Khans, Gingrich was shrewd enough to know that Whitman's lower-key approach would play better on television. For the same reason, the party leadership picked Whitman to co-chair the 1996 national convention.

Whitman's appeal proved to have a rather short shelf life. In July 1997, National Review dubbed her the "Nowhere Girl" because of her wobbly record on the GOP's red-meat social and economic issues. She only narrowly staved off a reelection challenge from a blandly likable Democrat named Jim McGreevey. She infuriated New Jersey Republicans by retracting a Senate bid in late 1999. When Whitman accepted Bush's offer to come to Washington and handle smoke and mirrors for him at the Environmental Protection Agency, the air quickly became thick with the smell of burned bridges.

The truth of the matter is that Whitman is hardly a standard-bearer for any kind of moderation. Her much-touted tax cuts were largely achieved by slashing state aid to municipalities, pushing costs downward and local property taxes upward, and by shorting the pension fund for state workers to the tune of $2.5 billion in contributions, eventually floating bonds to cover the shortfall. Her penchant for outdoor recreation belied her open-for-business attitude toward environmental regulation, leaving the state Department of Environmental Protection understaffed and demoralized (which would also be the case at the EPA). Her pro-choice orientation is hardly a badge of courage in New Jersey; in fact, it's pretty much a prerequisite for anyone seeking the governorship. It has also proved negotiable at crucial points. When two pro-choice Republican governors, William Weld of Massachusetts and Pete Wilson of California, demanded a chance to present their views at the national convention, Whitman let the party freeze them out. George W. Bush has famously credited his political success to being "misunderestimated" by his opponents; Whitman has spent her career being misoverestimated by her supporters.

Part of what makes "It's My Party, Too" so tedious is that what should have been Whitman's best stuff -- the near-miss gubernatorial campaign that briefly made her a Republican star, and how Bush sawed her off at the knees at the EPA over global warming -- has already been told (with extra-large helpings of insider dirt) by GOP consultant Ed Rollins in his 1996 memoir, "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms," and by journalist Ron Suskind in last year's "The Price of Loyalty." Whitman takes a decorous jab at Rollins and offers a weak gloss of the EPA fiasco, in which she announced Bush's support for the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, only to have Bush reject the protocol and leave her twisting in the wind. But for the most part she is proud to announce that "It's My Party, Too" is not a tell-all book.

A "tell-all" book is one thing; a "tell nothing" book is quite another, though in Whitman's case it's understandable that she would want to gloss over a few things. A great many people would like to know why Whitman, heading the EPA in the days and weeks following 9/11, repeatedly assured New Yorkers that the toxin-laden air of Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe. Whitman, understandably, doesn't go near that one in "It's My Party, Too," though she does describe in great detail how she came to present the Bush family with Scottie pups. The story of how she helped present the rescue workers of ground zero with lasting health problems will have to be told, I suspect, with the help of subpoenas and lawsuits rather than ghostwriters.

We will also have to wait for another book, I suppose, to get the inside story of how Whitman did her part to beautify the New Jersey approach to Philadelphia during preparations for the Republican National Convention in 2000. The main avenue to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge was Admiral Wilson Boulevard, a Brechtian hell's highway of go-go bars, liquor stores and hot-sheets hotels. Whitman spent some $45 million to bulldoze everything along the boulevard and replace it with a "park" that succeeded in making Camden look even more desolate. She also eliminated, along with the sleaze merchants, a good number of Camden's few remaining legitimate businesses. It does make one smile while reading her chapter on "Reclaiming Lincoln's Legacy" through minority outreach.

Since flunking out of the Bush League, Whitman has been relegated to the bush leagues, and she's clearly impatient to become a player again. Ultimately, the most pressing question in "It's My Party, Too" is: Does Christie Whitman still have a place in the Republican Party? The answer: Sure, as long as she's ready to keep playing the role of a front. And if she is, we can already guess the title of her next book: "Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another?" And the subtitle: "I Spent Years Sucking Up to Fundies and Ideological Con Men and All I Got Was This Stupid Book Deal." Who knows -- if Whitman releases some of the pent-up patrician rage coiled beneath the Oldwick tweed, that book might actually be worth reading. Which would put it miles ahead of this one.

By Steven Hart

Steven Hart is a freelance writer in New Jersey at work on a novel.

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