President Bush's second-term appointments confirm how important individual loyalty is to him. Even more than most, this president treats personnel matters as personal matters.
But Bush's choices for top-tier jobs in foreign policy and at the World Bank reveal another overriding priority that gets less attention. The other "L" word -- legacy -- goes unspoken by Bush but already shapes a hugely ambitious agenda for global change that he wants set in concrete by 2009.
The president has hidden this enormous ambition and the tools for achieving it in plain sight. He built his second inaugural address around repetitive emphasis of the word "freedom" and now is sending trusted aides out to design or modify specific policies and institutions to make the speech a conceptual blueprint for the next four years.
The nominations last week of Karen Hughes to run the State Department's public diplomacy effort and of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank should be seen in that longer-term light. So should the less publicized but equally revealing decision by Bush to give his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, a significant role in planning policies pegged to turning the lofty rhetoric on the Middle East into reality.
Judgments about the desirability or realism of Bush's grand designs for change -- and Congress's willingness to fund them -- must await future columns. But as his nominations move forward, it is important to understand that they do not represent random or unconnected choices made simply to reward loyalists. Be relieved or terrified, but realize that there is a plan at work here. Bush himself never talks about legacy and does not encourage conversations in which the word might figure, say officials who meet with him. Nor does he seem to mind that there is little public awareness that he is developing methods to pursue what the president's critics call madness -- his obsession with spreading freedom.
"He gets right down to business and talks about how to get these things done, not about the philosophy of why we should do them," says one senior official. "As soon as he makes his mind up on the World Bank, for example, the question right away becomes who to call to get support."
Bush was encouraged by the early call he placed to Jacques Chirac. The French president at first showed an undisguised coolness to moving Wolfowitz from the Pentagon's No. 2 slot to No. 1 at the World Bank, a 184-nation institution that is a major provider of aid to developing countries.
"Please remember that this is the World Bank," Chirac said, in an ironic phrase interpreted by one U.S. official as a plea to Bush not to turn the institution into the Arab World Bank or the American Bank for Spreading Democracy in the Middle East. Europeans and others must also have meaningful input, Chirac insisted. But Chirac then told Bush that France would not fight the nomination, a decision that bolsters Wolfowitz's chances of being confirmed by the bank's board of governors, in the view of U.S. and European officials.
"This nomination shows that the president is not indifferent to the World Bank as an institution. There is a desire to fit the bank into an agenda of change that other leaders can work with and influence," said one U.S. official. "If Chirac can see beyond the caricature of Wolfowitz as a warmonger, others will as well."
Wolfowitz's advocacy of invading Iraq as a linchpin for the democratization of the Middle East has made him a lightning rod for controversy, as has the gross mischaracterization of him as a neoconservative. His intellectual abilities and extensive government service make him a solid candidate to continue James Wolfensohn's spirited efforts to rescue the bank from irrelevancy or worse.
Bush's strong personal ties to Karen Hughes will make her a formidable figure that foreign governments will have to pay attention to as she works to change the U.S. image abroad. The same is true for John Bolton as ambassador-designate to the United Nations, an organization pushing for its own far-reaching reforms that need and deserve U.S. engagement. Bolton, European officials tell me, is far easier to work with in private negotiations than his public abrasiveness suggests.
Could other Bush motives account for these nominations? A perverse sense of humor? A desire to punish or destroy the World Bank or the United Nations? A taste for poetic justice slaked by condemning the talented wordsmith Gerson to try to bring his rhetoric to life?
Maybe. But count on that, and you run the risk of "misunderestimating" George W. Bush and his ambition once again.