A Republican who has served in three GOP administrations remarked that the mood in Washington this inauguration week reminded him a bit of the second Nixon administration. There is a smugness and insularity among senior officials -- a feeling that because the president has won reelection, his aides don't have to explain themselves or their policies to the nation.
A warning light of that second-term arrogance was Condoleezza Rice's confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rice is a smart and often charming person who could make a good secretary of state. But there's a broad consensus in Washington that she has not been a successful national security adviser; she wasn't able to resolve policy disputes in a timely way during her four years at the White House, and she didn't articulate effective strategies for dealing with postwar Iraq, Iran or North Korea.
So it was appropriate -- no, absolutely necessary -- that Rice get a tough grilling from the Senate. Where would she push U.S. foreign policy? What lessons has she learned from her past mistakes? What explanation can she offer for policy positions that she took on Iraq that now appear to have been wrong?
Rice's response to these questions was a kind of truculent peevishness -- as in, "How dare you?" She was provoked, to be sure, by California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who tried to bait the nominee with questions about Iraq of the "when did you stop beating your wife" variety. But that's part of the confirmation process. Boxer's basic question was an appropriate one, especially for this nominee: Did your loyalty to the president lead you to overlook key facts about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and other issues?
Rather than answer the question, Rice took it as a personal insult. "I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything," she said, and then went on to admonish Boxer that she should ask questions "without impugning my credibility or my integrity."
Boxer stood her ground and again pressed the issue of weapons of mass destruction, pushing Rice to admit that she had made a mistake. It was aggressive questioning, but not inappropriate. After all, the issue was the main rationale the administration offered for launching a war that has now claimed well over 1,300 American lives. Again, Rice bristled: "Senator, we can have this discussion in any way that you would like. But I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity."
Here's the nub of my worry, as Bush & Co. begin their second term: If they confuse rigidity with resolve, and refuse to learn from their mistakes because they fear it would be a sign of weakness, they are going to get the country into real trouble. Because they have mostly been promoted from within, the members of the second-term team are especially in need of reality checks from outside -- even rude or awkward ones. If they take offense at such challenges and treat public scrutiny as a personal affront, they won't be successful. It's as simple as that.
President Bush gets away with a similar stubbornness and refusal to admit error. But then, he's president. He claimed in an interview with The Post last week that the election result amounted to a mandate for his policies in Iraq. That's stretching things -- given that Bush offered so little detail during the campaign about his plans for Iraq or anything else. You can't have a mandate for policies you haven't explained. But again, he's president, and he has certainly won the test of reelection.
Not so Condoleezza Rice. And not so the administration's nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, who was similarly unhelpful when pressed during his confirmation hearing for details of the administration's legal thinking about interrogation and torture. These are public servants, whose confirmation hearings are their equivalent of an election. If they aren't prepared to answer tough questions from the public's representatives, they flunk the test. The essence of our system is public accountability -- a concept that the Bush team still seems to have trouble understanding. Accountability isn't about serving the president but about serving the country.
The late congressman Phil Burton of California used to say that government officials got in trouble when they began to believe that all the show and pomp of Washington was "for real." By that, he meant that officials were led astray when they began to think it was about themselves and their party rather than the nation. That delusion is especially easy in a second term, after four years in the adulatory echo chamber of the capital. Just ask survivors of the Nixon administration.
Rice can still be a fine secretary of state, and Gonzales a good attorney general, if they remember who they're working for.