The nation’s unemployment rate is at 9.7 percent.
On Wednesday, the unemployment rate for key government jobs hit 50 percent.
One prominent figure kept his job. The other lost his.
We’re talking of course about Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) and Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Barton’s the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee. McChrystal had been the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
In an enigmatic fashion that can only be understood among the folkways of Washington, the fates of the two men are inextricably linked. In fact, their futures both hinged on two crisis that developed in April. For Barton, it was the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. For McChrystal, it was the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull. The volcano spewed ash all over Europe. Air traffic ground to a halt, stranding McChrystal in Paris for days with Rolling Stone author Michael Hastings.
Barton’s nightmare unfolded late last week when he apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for the Obama Administration’s treatment the firm. Gulf Coast Reps. Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Jo Bonner (R-AL) demanded that the GOP brass strip Barton of his committee leadership post. At the time, a senior Republican aide told FOX that Barton was “within a centimeter” of losing his job.
Democrats seized on the Barton issue. Many, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) suggested that Barton’s remarks reflected a cozy relationship Republicans have with “big oil.”
Barton withdrew his apology to BP later that same day. But Barton’s remark simmered on the Sunday talk shows. Republican leaders watched to see if Barton erred further and took the temperature of rank-and-file Republicans. Meantime, Barton reached out to his colleagues and offered a mea culpa in an effort to hold his position.
Political Washington runs on a hyperbolic pulse of information. BlackBerries, Playbook and the TweetDeck caffeinate that perpetual flow. There’s always something new and fresh on the horizon.
In other words, Joe Barton’s future was the biggest thing going in Washington.
Until it wasn’t.
“If you ask me, Joe Barton can thank Stanley McChrystal for saving his job,” said one Republican aide.
There is only so much news oxygen in Washington. And by late Monday night, Barton’s embers were starved for fuel. Meantime, McChrystal’s profile in Rolling Stone burst into five-alarm inferno.
“I think the issue is closed,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) of Barton Wednesday, signaling the Texas Republican would hold his job.
“I think members of the Republican Conference believe in second chances,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN).
“Christmas came early this year,” said a senior Democratic aide, eager to use the GOP’s decision to keep Barton on board against Republicans.
But that will have to wait. Because for now, McChrystal is the story in Washington.
For a few minutes Wednesday, Washington’s attention was divided between news that Republicans wouldn’t can Barton, McChrystal’s meeting with President Obama and the U.S. playing Algeria in the World Cup.
Someone speculated that the president withheld his announcement about McChrystal’s future until the soccer match concluded. And the Washington cognoscenti chattered about details revealed about McChrystal in the article.
“He drinks Bud Light Lime?” mused one Senate aide of McChrystal’s beverage of choice. “I think I’d fire him just for that.”
Talk about the need for another beer summit…
But kidding aside, McChrystal was cooked. And President Obama had tapped the popular Gen. David Petraeus as his successor.
Quickly, comparisons were on.
“I’ve lived through the firing of two generals in my lifetime,” said 80-year-old Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI).
Of course, most of Washington began equating the president’s dismissal of McChrystal to President Truman’s 1951 termination of Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination.
Kildee was in his early twenties at the time. But he cautioned that while presidents dismissed both McChrystal and MacArthur, the scenarios were very different.
“Truman knew he was sacking a very popular, five-star general,” Kildee said. “There was no love lost between Truman and MacArthur. Obama did not have the same feelings toward McChrystal.”
And in fact, President Obama heard very little opposition to his decision to relieve McChrystal of his command. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) offered the most stark criticism of the president. He argued that McChrystal’s transgressions weren’t a firing offense.
“Gen. McChrystal is the victim of the president’s own lack of stature in the military,” Franks told FOX. Franks said that Mr. Obama was “already seen to be weak among the military” and suggested that the president may have been able to keep McChrystal on board had he “shown greater deference to the military and more respect.”
Truman faced serious criticism. Sen. Robert Taft (R-OH) called for Congress to remove the president from office for his handling of the MacArthur affair.
“President Truman must be impeached and convicted,” Taft wrote in an op-ed. “His hasty and vindictive removal of Gen. MacArthur is the culmination of series of acts which have shown that he is unfit, morally and mentally, for his high office.”
Truman played with fire when he pink-slipped MacArthur. MacArthur was a legend. One of the most-popular men in the world. Very few outside the military and diplomatic community knew much about McChrystal until the Rolling Stone article appeared.
That’s the fundamental difference in these scenarios. And with McChrystal, President Obama certainly isn’t going to have to endure what Truman dealt with just a few days after he fired MacArthur.
Upon his return to the U.S., MacArthur received ticker-tape parades in San Francisco and New York. And House Minority Leader Joe Martin (R-MA) invited the deposed general to speak to a Joint Meeting of Congress.
“I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life, with but one purpose in mind: to serve my country,” MacArthur said from the rostrum of a packed House chamber.
Lawmakers interrupted the general’s speech 50 times with standing ovations. MacArthur closed his remarks with what has become an iconic line in American oratory.
“I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that ‘old soldiers never die. They just fade away,’” MacArthur said.
McChrystal will receive no ticker-tape parade. He certainly won’t speak to a Joint Meeting of Congress. But one thing’s for sure: the McChrystal commotion will fade away. Just as the Barton dustup faded away, too.
This is Washington. McChrystal and Barton? They were both so 15 minutes ago. Been there, done that. Next.
Better check your TweetDeck. Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings are coming up next week.