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Quitting Time

In Post-Election Washington, Everyone's Got an Exit Strategy

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2004; Page C01

If you are anybody in this town, if you aspire to be anybody, if you are a somebody only inside your clandestine cubicle, this is the time to show your true clout.

Quit.

(Washington Post Photo Illustration)


Friday's Question:
It was not until the early 20th century that the Senate enacted rules allowing members to end filibusters and unlimited debate. How many votes were required to invoke cloture when the Senate first adopted the rule in 1917?
51
60
64
67


In fact, you already are behind. By yesterday, in one highly economical week, six of President Bush's Cabinet members tendered their letters of resignation: Attorney General John Ashcroft, Commerce's Don Evans, Education's Rod Paige, Agriculture's Ann Veneman, Energy's Spencer Abraham, and, with a Foggy Bottom press conference of his very own, coming shortly after the official White House announcement, the secretary of state, Colin Powell. That's almost one a day!

"We were in mutual agreement that it was the appropriate time for me to move on," Powell told reporters of the state of affairs between himself and President Bush. "I made no offer. We had pretty much come to our mutual agreement without anybody having to make any offer, counteroffers, anything like that. We knew where we were heading."

And Powell was heading out the door, ending four decades as a public servant, taking with him a moderate and diplomatically based approach to foreign policy. Donald Rumsfeld, the hard-line defense secretary with whom Powell often clashed, was staying put. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was expected to replace Powell.

Then there were the protest resignations out at CIA headquarters, where, by day's end yesterday, the total of disgruntled high-level spooks stomping out had reached three, with that wretched label of psychology -- "dysfunctional" -- trailing them out the door. The career operatives are not getting along so well with Bush's new intelligence director, Porter Goss, the man who keeps using that label.

"In this administration, personnel is policy, and they have a lot of it that they want to enact," said Marshall Wittman, a longtime aide to Sen. John McCain and now a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "They have come out of the gate with incredible abandon. What is highly unusual is the breakneck speed with which they are disposing of these folks."

Others may want to jump, or await the push, but they have to wait their turn. The news cycle must be managed. Last week the White House announced the departure of the divisive Ashcroft and presidential confidant Evans at the same time. That turned Evans's decision to return to Texas into not even a one-day story, more like a morning-only story.

Yesterday the White House bundled four resignations together. An e-mail dropped into reporters' in-boxes with four letters attached. They all bore different dates, however, indicating they'd been packaged for public consumption.

The theater of managing the resignation of political appointees is intended to minimize a sense of turnover, which could be viewed as chaos, and maximize the sense of efficiency and fresh opportunity.

"It's a big story," said Dee Dee Myers, press secretary in the Clinton White House, "but because [Bush] put Powell on top of it, it's about replacing Powell at State, which is smart. And by floating Condi as a replacement, it maximizes the 'We got a really qualified person going into this job.' "

In 1972, Richard Nixon asked his Cabinet secretaries and the entire White House staff, hundreds of people, to submit letters of resignation, so he could decide whom he wanted to keep. Turnover was massive. But the current situation, "as normal transitions go, with the party staying in power, is an unusually high number of Cabinet resignations, and it appears that two or three more may be in the offing," said David Gergen, an adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. He suggested that the turnover was due not so much to discontent as to the fatigue of staying on through four unusually difficult years.

If you wish to calibrate your personal resignation for maximum impact, carefully study the leave-takings of these luminaries. Ashcroft's and Powell's detonated like improvised explosive devices built on word processors. The sentence that jumped out from the attorney general's letter was this assertion: "The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved," although Ashcroft seemed to undercut his own case for the Justice Department's competence when he added, "I have handwritten this letter so its confidentiality can be maintained."

At his news conference, Powell read a statement describing his conversations with the president about his future as "good and fulsome," the latter word apparently used as a synonym for frequent, rather than nauseating. All the resignation letters released yesterday featured heavy deployment of words and phrases such as "humbly," "great honor," "distinct privilege," "dedicated," "labor of love" and "grateful."

While rapid and numerous, the Cabinet resignations lack the air of the spectacular displayed by Nixon or, more recently, former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey. For the moment, the gasp vacuum is being filled by career officers at the CIA, starting with John McLaughlin, the deputy director, who had served as acting CIA chief for several months this year.

The protest resignation is a hallowed and principled Washington tradition. It delights the media, ever eager for dissension, and it often elevates, however briefly, career policy experts who had toiled mostly anonymously. In the Clinton years, three high-ranking appointees of Health and Human Services quit when the president signed welfare reform legislation. In 2003, national security aides Rand Beers and Wayne Downing quit over frustrations with the White House direction in fighting terror, and three diplomats left over the war in Iraq.

Yesterday, even New York Times columnist William Safire quit.

Tomorrow: Joe Gibbs?


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