Bush's Card trick

Forget his meaningless staff switch. Bush is the most blinkered and rigid president since Depression-denying Herbert Hoover.

Published March 30, 2006 11:42AM (EST)

More senior White House aides have left as a result of criminal indictments in Bush's second term -- the vice president's chief of staff, the top administrator for federal procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget and the director of domestic policy -- than through normal attrition. So when physically depleted chief of staff Andrew Card submitted his resignation after five years on the job it was treated in Washington as a seismic event. In a fit of wishful thinking, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on Wednesday headlined: "Card's Departure Seen as a Sign President Hears Words of Critics." Lacking earthly evidence, Card's quitting was read like wonder in the heavens. Unmentioned was Bush's frantically defiant appearance in the Rose Garden immediately after the Oval Office ceremony accepting Card's resignation. With his entire Cabinet arrayed behind him in a phalanx, flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney on one side and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Peter Pace on the other, Bush insisted that he would stay the course in Iraq. "We're not going to lose our nerve," he proclaimed.

For months, Bush has been giving speeches declaring that unwavering support for his approach, whatever it is, will yield "victory." Once again, in the Rose Garden, he pledged he would not "retreat" before "the terrorists." His message remains the same as ever. "I mean," he said in a slightly exasperated tone during an interview with ABC News on Feb. 28, "my policy has not changed."

If anything, the replacement of Andrew Card with Joshua Bolten, his understudy, highlights Bush's steadfast refusal to make substantive changes not only in the personnel of de facto power, dominated by Cheney, but also in any of his ruinous policies. It is the opposite of a changing of the guard; rather, it is equivalent to promoting a younger butler to the presidential suite when the older one retires.

Card's neutered politics was his chief virtue. He was the last of the old Bush family retainers out of the New England tradition. I first met him in the mid-1970s in Boston, when he was a liberal Republican state representative. In 1980, he ran George H.W. Bush's primary campaign for president in Massachusetts against Ronald Reagan, when Bush ridiculed Reagan's "voodoo economics." Two years later, Card campaigned for the Republican nomination for governor but finished third, badly trailing a conservative upstart. Card was anathema to the right in the state. He then began his ascent in Washington, sponsored by Vice President Bush. First, he headed the intergovernmental affairs office in the Reagan White House. Once the senior Bush was elected president, Card was appointed his deputy chief of staff and then secretary of transportation. After Bush's defeat in 1992, that portfolio enabled Card to become the top lobbyist for the Automobile Manufacturers Association. With the return of another Bush to the White House, Card's family loyalty, Washington experience and bureaucratic proficiency made him a logical choice for George W. Bush's chief of staff.

His selection itself indicated Bush's view of the office. Some chiefs of staff are the most powerful figures next to the president, from Eisenhower's Sherman Adams to Reagan's James Baker. But the vice president occupies that role in the current Bush White House. Card had little influence over policy; he walked through the West Wing without leaving footprints. He was the chief of staff as efficient enabler. He survived because he put loyalty -- his loyalty to this Bush a continuation of his loyalty to the family -- above all. In a pinch, he even waited on tables.

Former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, in his memoir, "The Price of Loyalty," recounts an anecdote that begins with President-elect [George W.] Bush interrupting O'Neill's discussion of policy: "'Where's lunch?' They'd ordered cheeseburgers, but after fifteen minutes, they had not arrived. 'Go get me Andy Card,' Bush said to one of the Secret Service agents  [Card was] stolid and jovial, a man of solid, loyal character. Bush looked impatiently at Card, hard-eyed. 'You're the chief of staff. You think you're up to getting us some cheeseburgers?' Card nodded. No one laughed. He all but raced out of the room."

Joshua Bolten, the new chief of staff, is Card's Card. A banker at Goldman Sachs, he served as Card's deputy before his appointment as director of the Office of Management and Budget. In that position, Bolten constantly talked of progress and "improvement" in the deficit, paralleling Bush's proclamations about progress in Iraq. With each new budget, Bolten insisted the federal deficit was being lowered, and two years ago, he predicted it would be cut in half (from more than $500 billion) within five years. Now, Goldman Sachs, Bolten's former firm, projects about $5 trillion in deficits over the next 10 years. Bolten's budgets were dead on arrival, going from delivery to congressional offices to deposit in the circular file without even being used as doorstops. Proficient at crunching these fantasy numbers, he has proved himself as loyal as Card, and the natural factotum to succeed him. Once again, Bush is staying the course.

No evidence shakes, deters or changes Bush -- no intelligence report, criminal investigation or calamity. Like all failed presidents, Bush is a captive in an iron cage of his own making. The greater his frustration, the tighter he grips the bars. To locate any comparison for this degree of ideological and personal inertia and inability to adapt to reality, one must go back to Herbert Hoover's rigidity in the face of the Depression.

It was neither obvious nor foretold that Hoover would respond with blinders to the crisis that befell him. Hoover was considered the preeminent progressive of his age, the most capable man in the country. He was well educated as an engineer and scientist, was a self-made millionaire, having become wealthy in international mining and banking, and lived for years in London, one of the most cosmopolitan Americans of the time. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson summoned him, based on his sterling reputation, to organize relief for Europe and Russia. His organizational skills and the scale of his humanitarian projects were unexcelled. Appointed secretary of commerce by President Warren G. Harding, his integrity was completely untouched by the scandals of that administration. Reappointed by the inactive and reclusive President Calvin Coolidge, Hoover turned his department into a dynamo of policy innovation. In 1928, nominated by virtual acclamation, campaigning for a "New Era" that would "abolish poverty," he was elected president in a landslide. Six months after his inauguration, the stock market crashed. He was "the greatest innocent bystander in American history," according to newspaper editor William Allen White.

Historians now agree that Hoover did take important steps to deal with the Depression, for example, creating the Home Loan Bank system and the Reconstruction Finance Corp., among other measures. However, it was all too little, too late. He clung desperately to an ideology of social Darwinism masquerading as laissez-faire individualism. And he came to regard change outside the narrow parameters of his vision as evil, threatening the self-reliant American character as he understood it. In the name of ideology, he vetoed public works and unemployment insurance.

Hoover repeatedly expressed his faith that the Depression was ending as though such faith itself were sufficient to restore the economy. On May 1, 1930, he said his policies had "succeeded to a remarkable degree" and "we have now passed the worst." A month later, he declared there was no need for further measures: "The depression is over." Later, after leaving the White House, his illusions persisted. "Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples," he wrote.

Hoover entered office with overwhelming one-party dominance over Congress. In the 71st Congress, the Republicans had a 100-seat majority over the Democrats in the House of Representatives and a 17-seat majority in the Senate. Two years later, in 1930, the Democrats controlled the House by six seats and the Senate was deadlocked.

In 1932, Hoover campaigned against the promise of the New Deal as something that "would destroy the very foundations of our American system." When he heard Hoover's remark, Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "I simply will not let Hoover question my Americanism."

Like Hoover, Bush builds walls of denial as the facts tumble down on his policies. And, like Hoover, who periodically proclaimed prosperity just around the corner, Bush almost daily announces progress in Iraq. Like Hoover, he sustains a Micawber-like optimism that something will turn up in the face of worsening conditions. Hoover's rigid approaches inspired a crisis of confidence. His inviolate integrity fostered greater frustration about him as his honesty turned into sanctimonious armor. He suffered a crisis of credibility because his statements were glaringly at odds with reality. But Hoover was not responsible for creating the Depression. And no one accused him of being a liar. Bush, by contrast, has created his crisis himself.

On the day after Bush made his brave statement in the Rose Garden about "nerve" against "the terrorists," his ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is reported to have observed that there have been more assassinations by Shiite militia than killings by the Sunni insurgency. Khalilzad also delivered a message to Shiite leaders that President Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" the man they had selected to be prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and demanded that they depose him.

Thus regime change enters a new phase, though not in Washington.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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