Nov. 15, 2004

Tanned, Rested and Ready

The president isn’t wasting any time shaking things up after the election. While it is traditional for top-level appointees to submit resignations at the end of a presidential term, it is less customary for a president to accept them. But that has become the rule rather than the exception. So far, the president has accepted resignations from Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Education Secretary Rod Paige, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. There are more to come, including Tommy Thompson – and sooner or later, Norm Minetta. I expect Tom Ridge and Elaine Chao to move out of their present assignments, but not necessarily out of the inner circle. (BTW: Put Ridge on your list of people to watch for in the 2008 presidential contest. You heard it here first.)

There are two ways to read the tealeaves – the changes betoken either discord at the White House or big ambitions on the president’s part. You can find the correct answer in column B. Some appointees, including the Secretary of State, had asked for a little more time on the job, but were informed curtly that the White House wants to get on with finding a team for the next four years. Colin Powell, who always has noted that he serves at the pleasure of the president, took the news with typical aplomb. Others — who, for the sake of discretion I will not mention — suffered through cases of deep denial, and tried their best to beg their ways back.

This is to be expected. Team Bush has lived through three parlous and historic years, and it’s difficult to turn away from what in many cases will be the most thrilling and fulfilling years of these folks’ public careers. On the other hand, George W. Bush wants to avoid the fate of every second-term president since Teddy Roosevelt. He doesn’t want his presidency to grind slowly to a halt, while politicians in Washington busy themselves with plans to become the next commander in chief. Expect the most aggressive domestic agenda since TR – check my post from last week on the agenda items – and the most momentous Supreme Court selections since FDR.

Even now, close observers misunderestimate the president. My favorite headline comes from US News, which opines that the president wishes to “consolidate power” at the White House. If a president needs to consolidate power at his own White House, he’s in what the president’s father once referred to as “deep doo-doo.”

Here’s the deal: George W. Bush has built the most disciplined White House in memory – a fact that has annoyed to no end a press corps that feasts upon leaks planted by disloyal or disgruntled employees. Many people fitting those descriptions have been eased out (remember Richard Clarke) to write forgettable memos or draft poison-pen screeds for various publications.

Bush II will have more energy than the latter-day Bush I, with its beleaguered and war-tested cabinet. Unlike his predecessors, the president will not pack his second administration with bench players and camp followers. This administration will have the feel and vigor of a first-term administration, and the president’s charges will have strict orders to shake things up – to knock the barnacles from the bureaucracy, send laggards packing, and transform the federal government from a sclerotic, sluggish money-burning machine into an agent of transformation. We’ve already seen this at work with the CIA, where Porter Goss has made waves by putting the squeeze on the president’s enemies. In short, this is going to be interesting – and an absolute blast for those of us who observe politics for fun and profit.

Tanned, Rested, and Also Ready:

Bill Safire, one of my mentors in the news business and the man who sealed my fate as speechwriting director for President George Herbert Walker Bush, has announced that he’s packing his word processor as of Jan. 24, 2005.

Safire is the consummate Washington Insider – a former aide to Vice President Richard Nixon, speechwriter for President Nixon, and the recipient of many an important leak in this town over the last three decades. But he’s also a polymath, the author of interesting books about everything from Job to Nixon – with Jefferson and Lincoln in-between. He is the founder of the Judson Welliver Society, a collection of former White House Speechwriters. And best of all, he’s simply a wonderful, interesting, impish and lively guy. I hate to see him leave the op-ed page of The New York Times, but it’s comforting to know he’ll be around. I’ll write a more longer paen to Safire soon. But trust me: The guy’s a giant in Washington journalism – and I suspect he’s still available for those interested in seeking either advice or sage career counseling.

The Worst Poet Ever

Mikhael Lermontov, a minor Russian poet, once penned a couple odes to “A young woman, beautiful but dumb.” Britney Spears has now crafted what one might consider the definitive response, in the form of a tender ode to marriage: “A meal, a shower and some ice cream/Then I threw my man down, you know what I mean!” Dr. Spears says she intends to burnish her intellectual credentials by attending a college-to-be-named-later, a revelation that brings to mind another Russian-born author, Vladimir Nabokov, whose book, Lolita, taught every dictionary-toting youth the meaning of the word, “callipygian.”

Share your thoughts with Tony. E-mail him at