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White House Watch

For all his “change-the-tone” rhetoric, there are some forms of bipartisanship President Bush will not tolerate. Just ask Mike Parker, the erstwhile head of the Army Corps of Engineers. Parker, a balding, rotund former Mississippi congressman with a bushy mustache and a heavy drawl, was on Capitol Hill two weeks ago testifying before the Senate Budget Committee. Republican Kit Bond, Democrat Kent Conrad, and Parker himself all agreed on one thing: The budget for the Corps proposed by the White House was a joke. Bond spent five minutes gesturing wildly and railing against the invisible staffers at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) who drew up the numbers. Conrad, the Democratic chairman of the committee, agreed that the budget was ridiculously low. Which is not surprising, considering how important Corps projects are to members who need to secure federal pork for their districts.

But in his response, Parker, an ex-lobbyist and a buddy of Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, did the unthinkable: He told the truth. Instead of defending the numbers cooked up by OMB, he winked and hinted that, like last year, the White House would eventually cave in and approve the money needed to pay for all those wasteful Corps projects. “When I was on the Energy and Water subcommittee on appropriations in the House,” Parker testified, “I always looked at OMB, and never had those warm, fuzzy feelings toward them. I have found that after being in the administration and dealing with them, I still don’t have those warm, fuzzy feelings.” The room erupted in laughter. A little later, commenting on OMB’s reputation for lowballing its budget numbers, Parker commented in a sarcastic drawl, “I wouldn’t be so brash as to say this is the case here. But you’d have to ask OMB as far as what their opinions are.” It didn’t take long for OMB to strike back. Furious, Budget Director Mitch Daniels wrote Bush’s senior White House aides a scathing memo about Parker’s performance on the Hill. Parker was forced to resign the following week. Anonymous Bush aides said the president was sending a signal: Stray too far from administration dogma, and you’ll get kneecapped.

Given the Bush administration’s reputation for stability, Parker’s firing was big news. Compared with the revolving-door Clintonites, the Bush White House has been remarkably stable; in fact, Bush’s entire original Cabinet remains intact. But now that the president has been in office for more than a year, this spring may offer disgruntled (or disgruntling) Bushies the first acceptable moment to head for the door. And as they do, it will become ever more clear which kind of people thrive in this administration and which don’t.

The most precarious set of appointees are those with patrons other than the president or vice president themselves. Nobody thinks Bush had a personal role in Parker’s hiring; he handed off the patronage to Lott. As a result, Parker was fired for the kind of disloyalty that would not imperil the job of someone closer to the president. Consider Paul O’Neill. When Bush tried to sell his tax cut as a fiscal stimulus last year, his famously off-message Treasury secretary expressed doubt that it would speed up the economy. In January, after Bush accused Tom Daschle of wanting to raise taxes, O’Neill went on television and pronounced that Daschle “has not called for raising taxes this year.” Bush promoted the House stimulus package after 9/11; O’Neill dismissed it as “show business.” Just last week Bush gave a speech taking credit for lifting the economy out of recession, while O’Neill declared: “It seems quite clear now that our economy maybe never suffered a recession.” And how has O’Neill been punished for all this double-crossing? At most, he’s been asked to lay low; but he’s never been publicly reprimanded, let alone asked to resign. Speaking of Parker’s stray comments, one source close to Bush says, “Paul O’Neill has done the same thing a hundred times. But to get rid of Paul O’Neill, Dick Cheney would have to admit he made a mistake. Whereas with this guy it only requires you to say Trent Lott made a mistake.”

AND THE ADMINISTRATION has been happy to say just that—abandoning Lott’s candidates and blaming him for their failures. In fact, from the White House’s point of view, the Senate minority leader’s personnel recommendations have been one disaster after another. Curtis Hbert, a Lott protg whom Bush made chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, resigned and told The New York Times that he was pushed aside because of Ken Lay’s influence over the White House, a story that still dogs Bush. Lott crony Parker turned out to be a debacle. And Lott’s friend Charles Pickering, nominated to a federal appeals court, has become an albatross around Bush’s neck. As with Hebert and Parker, the White House doesn’t blame Pickering; it blames Lott. As one White House source says, despite his last-minute intervention to try to save the judge, Bush’s attitude is, “This is not my guy. His agenda is not my agenda. You [Lott] were supposed to have the votes for this.”

The second group unlikely to thrive in the Bush White House—even if they were chosen by Bush and even if they remain loyal to his agenda—are intellectuals. Maybe it’s their characteristic desire to speak out that gets them into trouble; maybe it’s their tradition of freewheeling debate. Whatever the reason, they’ve tended to annoy the White House even when they generally promote the party line. The first high-profile brain to depart was University of Pennsylvania Professor John DiIulio. He and Bush were friends, and Bush made DiIulio’s ideas about faith-based anti-poverty work a cornerstone of his presidency. But that didn’t stop DiIulio from flaming out after public fights with the religious right—”Bible-thumping doesn’t cut it,” he said during one famous row—and conservatives on the Hill. “The sort of people who are good about thinking up ideas are not necessarily the sort of people who are good at getting them done,” says a Bushie about DiIulio’s exit. David Frum, a leading conservative intellectual who went to work as a Bush speechwriter, was seen by the press as running afoul of Bush’s code of loyalty after his wife told friends that he wrote the “axis of evil” line in Bush’s State of the Union address. Bob Novak argued this probably got Frum fired, but it didn’t (Frum had told people before the State of the Union that he was leaving). Actually, Frum left because of his frustration at not being able to write and speak openly. And Paul Wolfowitz, the former university dean, faces a similar problem. Most of Bush’s foreign policy aides agree with Wolfowitz’s hawkish views. But many dislike his style: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Wolfowitz spoke obsessively about going after Iraq when the rest of Bush’s team was concentrating on Al Qaeda. The resulting tension was captured perfectly in an anecdote reported recently in The Washington Post. After Wolfowitz spoke out of turn and beat his Iraq drum during a national security meeting, the president dispatched career Bush man Andy Card to dress him down.

SO WHO WILL be next to leave? In a recent interview, Cabinet punching bag Christine Todd Whitman refused to say that she would stick out Bush’s full term. Card has always said 18 months is the average tenure for a White House chief of staff. Paul O’Neill continues to disappoint tax cutters by undermining Bush’s fiscal arguments (though he is getting credit for hunting down terrorist assets). Even after Norm Mineta’s heroic portrayal in the Post series— “[Expletive] pilot discretion! Get those goddamn planes down!”—the lone Democrat in the Bush Cabinet remains on everyone’s list for early retirement.

But the Bushie least likely to survive isn’t Whitman, O’Neill, or Mineta. And he doesn’t fit into any of the problematic categories: He’s not a disloyal bureaucratic hack, a freewheeling intellectual, or an out-of-step Cabinet member. In fact, he is a former corporate chieftain: Secretary of the Army Thomas White, the eleven-year Enron executive who joined the administration last June. If he goes, it will have nothing to do with this White House’s quirks. Rather, it will be for that timeless Washington reason: scandal.

White has been mired in the Enron scandal since the company went bankrupt. From 1998 to 2001, he was vice-chairman of Enron Energy Services (EES), which seems to have cooked its books as much as the rest of the company. On top of that, he’s got serious conflict-of-interest problems. At EES, White lobbied members of Congress to privatize utilities on military bases, which could have helped Enron reap billions in government contracts. And sure enough, in his first weeks on the job as secretary of the Army, White began pushing the privatization plan. Recently, White revealed that as secretary he has had 29 phone calls or meetings with Enron executives. And earlier this month the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee accused White of giving them an “inaccurate representation” of his Enron holdings during his nomination process.

White House support for White seems to be eroding. Last Thursday a reporter asked what Bush thought about the fact that White has failed to divest himself of certain Enron holdings even though he promised the Senate Armed Services Committee he would do so as a condition of his confirmation. Ari Fleischer declined to make even a perfunctory declaration of presidential support. Rather, he read a legalistic statement that strained to point out that White hadn’t run afoul of any federal ethics rules; he just didn’t comply with his promise to the Senate.

And now another shoe seems ready to drop. Public Citizen says it is about to release a report that will essentially accuse White’s Enron division of price- gouging during California’s energy crisis last year, something that would have been prevented by the price caps that Enron and the Bush administration so vehemently opposed. Public Citizen says it will call for White to resign. It may be the first Naderite proposal that this president adopts.

This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.