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William Rivers Pitt: Changes

Going Too Far

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 26 April 2006

The beleaguered Bush White House has spent the last several weeks insisting that no major shake-up of the administration was necessary, and no reshuffling of personnel was in the works.


The New York Times reported on Monday that James Baker III, the man who pulled George W. Bush's irons out of the fire in Florida during the 2000 recount, the Secretary of State and close confidant of the former president Bush, has been tapped to head up a "congressionally mandated, bipartisan effort to generate new ideas" regarding the chaos in Iraq. Baker will travel to Baghdad and the Mideast region on a "fact-finding mission," after which he will deliver to Mr. Bush "some advice and insights that might be useful to the policy makers in Washington."

Whatever else can be said about Mr. Baker, few can deny his effectiveness as a field-general during difficult situations, and his reputation as a power-player is legendary in Washington. A man like this will not be a cipher under any circumstances, and the fact that he is being brought in to deal with the weightiest millstone around this administration's neck is telling.

At first blush, the tectonic plates appear to be shifting along Pennsylvania Avenue. The removal of Andy Card as chief of staff, and the placement of Josh Bolten in that position, further indicates that the administration, notwithstanding their denials, intends to start doing things differently. Bolten is looking to be far more hands-on than his predecessor, a significant departure from the insular status quo that has dominated administration deliberations since day one.

These seeming changes may only be cosmetic, however. The core of this administration has always been centered around three men - Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush - and this core remains, for the time being, intact. There is also the added dynamic of the relationship between Baker and Bush. Bush has never entirely welcomed advice from his father, and to have his father's most gifted fixer come swooping in to rescue him once again must be galling. Will he chafe at the intrusion? Will Cheney allow his own domination of administration priorities to be diminished?

The Defense Secretary is the wild card in the scenario. Rumsfeld, of course, has dug his heels in after absorbing unprecedented criticism of his tenure from a battery of six retired generals. Were it his decision to make, Rumsfeld would remain in his current position until the last minute of the last day of this administration. Ultimately, however, the decision may not be his to make.

New York Senator Hillary Clinton has requested that the Senate Armed Services Committee hold hearings in which those six retired generals would be allowed to air their grievances with Mr. Rumsfeld. The chairman of this committee, Senator John Warner of Virginia, has said he will put the question to a vote before the entire committee. The eleven Democrats on this committee will almost certainly vote in favor of the hearings, which means only two of the thirteen Republicans on the committee have to join them to make these hearings happen.

If Senator Collins of Maine and Senator McCain of Arizona, two Republicans who have been scathingly critical of Rumsfeld, can be convinced to vote with the Democrats on the hearings, we will see those six generals slated for a high-profile stomping of Rumsfeld up on Capitol Hill. If these two Republicans, or any two for that matter, cross the pond on this matter, the administration will be forced to deal with a Hobson's Choice: weather the catastrophic damage from six generals testifying about the failure of everything Rumsfeld has laid hands to, or accept his resignation and admit to the failure of everything he has laid his hands to.

This accounting has, clearly, left out one of the great power players in modern political history. Karl Rove, or so we hear, is also being moved aside despite his position as Republican kingmaker, and is tasked to hold the Republican congressional majority together with both hands as the 2006 midterm elections loom. No one should be fooled, however; George W. Bush has relied on Rove's tactics and instincts for years, and will not allow his political consigliore to stray too far from the core. As with Rumsfeld, however, the choice may be out of Bush's hands. Fitzgerald is reportedly eyeing Rove in the Plame investigation, and it has been widely speculated that Rove's role is being de-emphasized in case an indictment is in the offing.

The confusion and potential upheaval does not stop there. The departure of press secretary Scott McClellan marks the end of a strange time in the White House press room. McClellan was, hands down, the single worst liar in Washington. His press conferences over the last few months came to resemble the contests between Christians and lions in the Roman Coliseum.

It has been no accident of fate that the most damaging revelations regarding administration activities have come out on his watch. An energized and combative press corps turned him, on an almost daily basis, into a stammering, beet-faced parody of a spokesman. His reported replacement, Tony Snow of Fox News, may come to fare better in running the gauntlet. But with so many horses already out the barn door, one wonders if anyone can effectively represent the message of an administration that has never been interested in answering questions or accepting responsibility for bad decisions.

Are things really changing in this White House, or are we merely seeing a superficial reshuffling that does not affect the center of things? Baker is coming in with all attendant power in tow. A vote on hearings in the Senate may provide enough dynamite to blast Rumsfeld out of his civil service sinecure. Rove has been moved to the side, and could join Scooter Libby on the long honor role of Republican White House staffers who have been indicted. Card is out and Bolten is in.

Bush and Cheney, of course, remain. What effect all these seeming changes will have on those two, and the administration in general, remains to be seen. At least we don't have to worry about any potential confusion or missteps that may come with a significant shake-up in the White House. As administration spokesmen have clearly said, such a reshuffling isn't happening, and isn't necessary.

Or something.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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