At his final press conference, President Bush seemed mystified by one aspect of his legacy in particular—his failure to change the tone in Washington. The man who campaigned on his bipartisan record as governor of Texas, and was confident that he could impose freedom and democracy on the Middle East, feels like a victim of DC’s culture of poisonous partisanship, even as Obama seems to transcend it.
Bush failed in large part because there were too many conservative apparatchiks in his administration who did not share that goal—they saw government as a warfare of interests, where service to ideology was idealism. They hijacked his administration in ways both big and small. I saw it with my own eyes. It’s a story I haven’t told until now.
It was a few months after the attacks of September 11. The country was briefly united around the Bush administration. The divisions left by the 2000 election had faded away in the face of our common grief and resolve. We remembered that we were all Americans first—not Democrats or Republicans. (If that sounds naïve to you now, you’re part of the problem.)
I’d been working as chief speechwriter to Rudy Giuliani, who had left office respecting the two-term limit imposed by New York’s voters. I was tired—writing eulogies for three months will do that to you. But the memory of the towers’ collapse was still fresh. I wanted to serve my country and see the work to completion. I was asked to come down to the State Department, to interview for a position vaguely described as writing for the war on terror.
I met with a woman who shall remain nameless—no point in dragging her through the mud now. She was a southern political operative who’d worked on the first President Bush’s campaigns. She pointed proudly to a blown-up photo of 41 and 43 on the wall as she asked me to sit down. She felt a familial loyalty to the clan—she was part of the restoration after the stain of the Clinton years.
My first sign of the trouble to come was during the pre-game small talk. She’d asked me to describe what I’d been doing the past few months, and I gave the story of my recent life, capped by something to the effect of how I took this all (meaning 9/11 and its still-unfolding aftermath) personally. She stiffened in her chair and said, “Nobody takes this more personally than the president.”
I quickly tried to clarify that I hadn’t been trying to one-up the president, just that the attacks had affected a lot of people personally in different ways. But the snowball of suspicion had begun to build in her mind—where did my loyalties lie? Soon came the question:
“Who did you vote for?” she asked.
“I don’t think I have to answer that question,” I replied.
I’d expected an interview, not an interrogation, and while I took no special pride in giving the political equivalent of name, rank, and serial number, I was dizzy and pissed. We were at war, and I was being asked about a vote cast in another era. I’d taken the president’s talk of national unity seriously—his staff had not.
She tried a different tack, asking whether I’d volunteered for the campaign, donated money, or attended any rallies. I said that I’d been working in city government at the time and it would have been inappropriate for me to be involved in partisan politics, but added that I’d seen then-Gov. Bush speak on education reform at the Manhattan Institute and been impressed. I reiterated that I’m a registered independent and to calm any fears that I was a knee-jerk New York liberal, I (lamely and no doubt unwisely) said I’d supported John McCain during the 2000 primaries. This she noted in a file.
During a perfunctory walk down the marble hallways she explained with a cold smile that the State Department was full of liberal careerists who tried to obstruct Republican presidents’ attempts to implement their foreign policy. They were, in effect, the enemy within. I recalled the old Truman/Eisenhower-era line about how partisan politics ought to end at the water’s edge.
Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. It was nothing approaching heartbreak—there are other ways to serve your country. But when the Monica Goodling scandal broke, I was not surprised.
You might remember Goodling as a revealing footnote in the autumn of the Bush administration. She was the 34-year-old Justice Department White House liaison—known as “she who must be obeyed” by her staff—who illegally imposed partisan litmus tests on prospective Justice Department civil-service employees. An investigation found that Goodling asked about abortion in 34 interviews and gay marriage on at least 21 different occasions. She recommended Internet searches be applied to job applicants to gain insight into their political beliefs, and just before Christmas 2006, Goodling emailed political appointee John Nowacki urging him to “hire one more good American”—a phrase he later testified applied exclusively to conservatives. Most amusingly from the perspective of my State Department escapade, when one applicant expressed admiration for Condoleezza Rice, Goodling frowned and said, “But she is pro-choice.”
Monica Goodling’s actions were standard operating procedure in the belly of the Bush administration, as second-tier appointees advanced a narrower partisan agenda than the president ever professed. Bush’s centrist rhetoric was understood to be empty rhetoric by these operatives who remembered that the affable Bush had also been an advocate of Lee Atwater’s scorched-earth politics in his father’s 1988 campaign.
Professional partisans’ fundamental analysis of American politics is us against them—their ideological intolerance is a key reason why Bush was ultimately unable to unite the country even after a massive attack. This is more than just the latest flavor of partisan hackery—it is a sign that Washington team-ism has metastasized to the core of our body politic. Obama is trying to cure this capital-culture cancer by showing that presidents do not have to be a prisoner of partisan politics—witness his recent dinner with conservative columnists and substantively centrist cabinet—but he will have to make sure that message resonates on every level of his administration to truly put this Bush-league legacy behind us.