Shake-Up Comes Faster Than Forecast

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, November 15, 2004; 12:28 PM

Last week, the conventional wisdom was that the White House would carefully stagger the resignations of top administration officials over a period of weeks.

The theory was that doing so would minimize continuity problems at a time of war and reduce the public relations damage.

But this morning the White House announced a whopping four cabinet resignations, including the hugely important position of secretary of state.

Today's news could create some temporary power vacuums and a certain amount of confusion, even though officials said the cabinet secretaries' departures will be spaced out.

But there's also evidence that once the bloodletting is over, the handful of White House officials closest to President Bush will emerge with an even tighter and more absolute grip on power than they had in the first term.

Mike Allen and William Branigin are reporting on the shake-up on "The resignation letters carry a variety of dates, indicating that the White House has received a stream of them since the election and has been packaging the announcements," they write.

On MSNBC this morning, David S. Broder of The Washington Post speculated about who Bush might pick to replace Secretary of State Colin L. Powell: "The jobs that have come open so far, he has filled from the White House staff. I would suppose that one possibility would be that Condoleezza Rice would move over from her job as national security adviser."

Michael Dobbs and Mike Allen wrote about one of the departures in Saturday's Washington Post: "Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, who spearheaded implementation of the No Child Left Behind law, a centerpiece of President Bush's first-term domestic policy agenda, is stepping down, administration officials said yesterday. . . .

"They named White House domestic policy adviser Margaret Spellings as his probable successor. . . .

"For all the energy that Paige displayed in promoting the new law, many observers believed that real power over education policy lay in the White House, particularly with Spellings, who advised Bush on education issues when he was governor of Texas. Her promotion would be the second time Bush put a personal aide at the head of a Cabinet department. On Wednesday, Bush named White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to succeed Ashcroft."

Also leaving: Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

Kenneth T. Walsh, writing in U.S. News & World Report over the weekend, seemingly anticipated this morning's news: "Suddenly, the West Wing is buzzing with a new sense of possibility," he wrote.

"The president is moving briskly to seize the moment. He is consolidating power at the White House, channeling ever more influence to Vice President Dick Cheney, his closest confidant, and counselor Karl Rove, architect of his November 2 victory. Senior White House officials tell U.S. News that Bush plans to replace at least half his cabinet over the next few months. His aim is to remove officials who have become lightning rods for controversy or who seem to have lost their desire to serve in Washington. . . .

"In personal terms, White House officials say they've rarely seen Bush so upbeat. 'He's got the wind at his back,' says a senior aide. 'He's in very high spirits. He looks at the election as strong validation of his agenda.'"

Mandate Debate

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "[W]hat defines a mandate, and to what does it apply? History suggests that's up to the winner. . . .

"Democrats, however, insist that Bush won no such endorsement from Americans to pursue such an aggressive second-term agenda."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The sheer number of voters that Bush inspired to turn out demonstrated impressive strength. But on several key indicators, Bush's victory ranks among the narrowest ever for a reelected president. . . .

"The scale of Bush's victory, compared with that of most other reelected presidents, doesn't provide the basis for claiming an extravagant mandate. But a mandate is always an abstraction. The GOP gains in Congress give Bush something more tangible: a solid majority in both chambers. . . .

"Bush still needs some Democratic support to reach the 60 Senate votes required to break a filibuster. But he has enough congressional strength to pass an agenda that could define his party for 2008 and beyond. The question is whether the agenda he advances will expand or erode a presidential majority that, by historical standards, remains fragile."

Blair's Project

Mike Allen and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "President Bush set a goal yesterday of ensuring the creation of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel before he leaves office in 2009. With British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his side, Bush pledged to put the resources of the United States and the prestige of his presidency behind the quest."

But, as Allen and Kessler note: "Optimistic rhetoric has been dashed before, administration by administration, by repeated waves of violence and fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. Bush originally set a goal of a Palestinian state by 2005."

So was there anything there besides rhetoric? Not so much.

"Bush did not endorse any of the specific measures that Blair proposed -- including an international peace conference and the designation of a U.S. envoy to the Middle East -- but said he will do so if he believes they are practical," Allen and Kessler write.

Richard W. Stevenson and Steven R. Weisman write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush suggested that he was willing to plunge back into Middle East peacemaking, vowing to 'spend the capital of the United States' on nurturing moderate Palestinian leaders and helping them establish a state that could coexist with Israel. . . .

"Mr. Bush gave no indication of any basic change in American policy. . . . The president was vague at the news conference about what steps he might take beyond offering financial aid and technical assistance to the Palestinians as they head toward elections that are supposed to take place within 60 days."

Patrick E. Tyler writes in the New York Times: "Facing his own re-election contest next spring, and a continuing rebellion in his governing Labor Party over the course of the war, Mr. Blair would have gotten no political boost from just another appearance with Mr. Bush under the chandeliers of the White House East Room.

"He came with a mission to get an unambiguous and strategic commitment from the American president to close a deal for a Palestinian state that has eluded all their predecessors -- and was denied Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died this week. To some extent, he did."

Blair spoke with Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday:

"MR. RUSSERT: Did you see a new George Bush on Friday when it comes to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

"PRIME MIN. BLAIR: Well, I thought the press conference was interesting, in the sense that there was a very powerful, confident expression of his desire to get this done, but his saying the condition on which it has to be achieved is that the Palestinian state is a democratic state and then we set out some steps as to how we get there. But I think it was a very passionate plea to make progress in the Middle East, but also a very realistic and hardheaded assessment of the fact you aren't going to get that progress unless we can build democratic institutions on the Palestinian side."

Here's the transcript of the Bush-Blair news conference, and their joint statement.

The British Press

The BBC summed up reactions from the British press: "Friday's news conference by Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush failed to convince some of their strongest critics here."

Tim Reid writes in the London Times: "With perhaps less than seven months until he faces a now deeply sceptical British electorate for a third time, Mr Blair was desperate yesterday for Mr Bush to dig him out of his own political hole, and how graphically it showed.

"As the two approached their podiums, Mr Blair wore a rictus smile, and was visibly tense. Mr Bush looked almost languorous, as befitted a man who has just won re-election and will not have to face the judgment of his people again.

"It was only last July that after a triumphant speech to the assembled might of the US Congress, Mr Blair, hugely admired in America, stood next to Mr Bush to help to articulate their Iraq policy. Then, he did most of the talking, and was widely seen among the US media as one of Mr Bush's greatest electoral assets. Yesterday Mr Bush did most of the talking."

Andrew Marr writes of the BBC: "The immensely powerful, unconstrained re-elected US President promised over the next four years to 'spend the capital of the United States' trying to create a free and democratic Palestinian state.

"If he means it, that is a formidable promise. . . .

"But was this mere summit rhetoric? Is there any, faint, reason for hope this time, after so many dashed hopes, bloody failures and broken deals over past decades?"

Marr also writes fascinatingly about what he says could be called the doctrine of the "new interventionism".

Poodle Patrol

James Sturcke writes in the Independent: "It is a question that has dogged Tony Blair and he seemed to cringe as President Bush had a stab at answering it.

"'The prime minister is sometimes, perhaps unfairly, characterised in Britain as your poodle,' began the questioner. 'I was wondering if that's the way you may see your relationship? And perhaps, more seriously, do you feel for the . . . '

"Mr Blair broke in: 'Don't answer "yes" to that question,' he urged, prompting laughter.

"The president, however, had already decided such a serious charge required a stern response from him.

"'Plenty capable of making his own mind. He's a strong, capable man,' he barked. 'When times get tough he doesn't wilt. You know, when the criticism starts to come his way -- I suspect that might be happening on occasion -- he stands for what he believes in.'

"Mr Blair appeared uncomfortable but was seemingly in no mood to roll over."

Brian Brady writes in the New Scotsman: "Rarely can such fulsome, public praise from the leader of the free world have provoked such widespread discomfort. After four years during which Blair's increasing proximity to Bush has caused distress at home -- not least within his own party -- the unambiguous signal that the President would spend the next four years drawing his colleague closer into the US orbit was hardly likely to calm those fears."

On to Europe

In an attempt to restore the badly-damaged transatlantic ties, Bush announced that the first foreign trip of his second term will be to Europe.

AFP reports that "a senior administration official said Bush was mostly likely to go in February and was expected to stop at NATO headquarters in Brussels, possibly at the European Union, as well as other to-be-determined destinations."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times; "In the view of the White House, Mr. Bush's decisive victory has forced the Europeans to stop sneering and approach the table and deal...

"In the view of the Europeans, an American president freed from the political pressures of re-election can focus on the big goals of legacy - peace in Iraq, a Palestinian state, containment of Iran's nuclear ambitions - all of which will be easier with Europe at his side....

"To underscore the new mood, Mr. Bush put on a tuxedo and spent two hours at a surprise birthday party for his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, at the British ambassador's residence on Saturday night."

Cheney's Cough

Vice President Cheney's brief trip to the hospital set off wild bursts of speculation Saturday, most but not all of which abated once it turned out he just had a cold.

Mike Allen and Michael Dobbs wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney, who has had four heart attacks, underwent three hours of tests at George Washington University Medical Center yesterday after he experienced shortness of breath and was coughing up phlegm.

"Doctors said the tests did not show any heart abnormalities, just a bad cold."

So what would happen if Cheney died?

"If Cheney were to die in office or become incapacitated, Bush would have the right to nominate a new vice president, in accordance with the 25th Amendment, which went into effect in February 1967. The only stipulation is that the president's candidate be confirmed 'by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.'"

And what about Bush's skipped physical?

Allen and Dobbs writes: "Bush skipped the physical that he usually undergoes each August. . . . Asked by The Washington Post last week why Bush still has not undergone a physical, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said: ' . . . He had a busier travel schedule the last few months than the previous three years. The president is physically fit and in great health. If his doctor felt he needed to do it sooner, he would have.'"

Lisa Getter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Given Vice President Dick Cheney's history of heart problems, even his brief trip to the hospital Saturday after suffering shortness of breath raised questions about what would happen if he were forced to step aside for health reasons."

So who would Cheney's replacement be?

Here's Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, on CNN's Inside Politics Sunday: "You know who else has a catch in the throat every time Dick Cheney goes to the hospital? All the Republicans looking at 2008. Because this is an unusual situation where you have no obvious successor to a very popular president within his own party.

"And the fact that Cheney is very unlikely to run in 2008 makes this a wide-open field. If, for any reason, they had to replace him at any point, it would be a very interesting question whether President Bush would put in someone who would have a leg up."

Lynne Cheney told Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday that her husband was resting up on Sunday, but would be back at work today.

So, here's a stumper: What if Cheney died before the Electoral College meets on Dec. 13? Would they still elect him, or would they pick someone else? And would that person then not need House and Senate confirmation?

CIA Purge?

Dana Priest and Walter Pincus wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "The deputy director of the CIA resigned yesterday after a series of confrontations over the past week between senior operations officials and CIA Director Porter J. Goss's new chief of staff that have left the agency in turmoil, according to several current and former CIA officials."

Knut Royce wrote in Sunday's Newsday: "The White House has ordered the new CIA director, Porter Goss, to purge the agency of officers believed to have been disloyal to President George W. Bush or of leaking damaging information to the media about the conduct of the Iraq war and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to knowledgeable sources."

This morning, Priest reports, the purging appeared to begin: "The two top officials running the CIA's clandestine service resigned this morning, following a series of clashes with director Porter J. Goss's chief of staff."

Radio Address

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press about Bush's Saturday weekly radio address: "President Bush painted a rosy picture of the situation in Iraq, claiming significant progress Saturday in the U.S. military's battle in an insurgent stronghold."

Here's the text of the address.

Blogger Atrios cynically notes that this is pretty much what Bush says in his radio address every other week. He provides this convenient Google link to back up his argument.

Card Watch

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers about Andrew H. Card Jr., who last week re-upped for a second term as White House chief of staff.

"While largely invisible to the public, Card wields considerable influence as a gatekeeper and confidant to Bush, a referee in administration turf fights and a traffic cop for the flow of information.

"When presidential scholars and political insiders marvel at the discipline in the Bush White House, they're really paying tribute to Card."

Gonzales Watch

And Time magazine weighs in on Bush's nomination of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general.

Michael Duffy writes: "Gonzales' appointment is a vintage Bush move -- controversial, virtually impossible to stop and bristling with tactical advantage. . . .

"[T]here is a growing suspicion that Gonzales' sojourn at Justice, however long it may be, is just the first half of a Texas two-step and that he is being sent through the Senate confirmation process now in part as preparation for a spot on the Supreme Court later.

"In any case, Bush gains in Gonzales not only a trusted legal sword but a nifty political shield as well."

Civil Rights Record

April Bethea writes for Cox News Service: "A deeply divided U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday failed to sign-off on a report prepared by its staff that criticizes the Bush administration's record on civil rights.

"In a 4 to 4 split, the commission was one vote shy of the support needed to adopt the 181-page report, which contends that 'President Bush has not defined a clear agenda nor made civil rights a priority.'"

Scary Song

ABC News reports on how a Boulder high school got a visit from the Secret Service after complaints that a student band performing Bob Dylan's song "Masters of War" during a talent show consisted of a threat to the president.

"The 1963 song ends with the lyrics: 'You might say that I'm young. You might say I'm unlearned, but there's one thing I know, though I'm younger than you, even Jesus would never forgive what you do. . . . And I hope that you die and your death'll come soon. I will follow your casket in the pale afternoon. And I'll watch while you're lowered down to your deathbed. And I'll stand o'er your grave 'til I'm sure that you're dead.'"

Boulder principal Ron Cabrera "said Secret Service agents questioned him for 20 minutes and took a copy of the lyrics. They did not ask to speak to any of the students but they did question a teacher who had supervised a student protest that was held at the school last weekend."

Tax Watch

Allan Sloan writes in his Newsweek column: "The big parlor game in Washington these days is who's going to get the big jobs in the Bush administration's second term. It's fun, it's gossipy, it's all about power. But I'd like to propose my own game: guessing what George W. Bush is really up to when he talks about 'reforming' taxes and Social Security, and how he proposes to deal with the budget deficit."

Sloan's prediction? Bush will cut taxes some more.

"There's never a reason not to cut taxes. The economy's good? Cut taxes, give people their money back. Economy's bad? Cut taxes to stimulate it. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, W's gotta cut. Deficits, shmeficits. Who cares? Just borrow some more from China and Japan."

Phony as a $200 Bill

The Associated Press reports: "Charges have been dropped against a woman who paid for clothes with a fake $200 bill that featured President Bush's picture and the serial number DUBYA4U2001."

© 2004