A President in Need of a Blunt Friend

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, September 29, 2005

What George W. Bush needs right now is his own version of Clark Clifford. He needs a friend close enough to tell him that his presidency is failing -- and wise enough to describe what Bush must do to salvage it.

Clifford played that truth-telling role for Lyndon Johnson at the height of LBJ's Vietnam crisis. Through a unique combination of being loyal to Johnson and yet not being dependent on him, this archetype of the Washington legal establishment could not only talk to the president but also be heard -- if not necessarily followed in detail.

Bush's floundering since he was caught off base and off guard by Hurricane Katrina strips the veil from a broad pattern of recurrent inattention to the duties of governance, of misplaced loyalty to incompetent subordinates, and a crippling refusal to look back at and learn from mistakes.

I take no pleasure from that harsh assessment. I have never shared the unreasoning conviction of many of his more partisan opponents that Bush as a national leader is illegitimate, moronic or both. He isn't.

Add this sobering reality: We have three years and change left on Bush's second mandate. He has undertaken a vital effort to establish a new and badly needed foundation for U.S. policy and the U.S. presence in the Middle East. Hurrying him into lame-duck, dead-end status ahead of his time will undermine that effort and harm the nation in other ways.

But in the American system, only Bush can prevent that from happening once confidence has been shaken in presidential leadership as severely as it has been over the past five months. It is up to Bush to prevent the breaking of his presidency.

He has at least stopped digging himself deeper into the hole into which Katrina shoved him. But the public sees his efforts on Hurricane Rita through the prism of Katrina -- as damage control and repair for his reputation. He is on the defensive, and showing it.

This is an inadequate but welcome change from the cocksureness that reelection brought to the small team of decision makers and explainers around Bush. As I wrote in June as polls showed support falling sharply, doubts and complaints about the policies the administration was pursuing in Iraq had become "white noise that Bush and aides no longer hear."

The puzzling inability (refusal?) to hear what was going on in the country exploded into prime time when Katrina struck and Bush froze, appearing determined to see through his protester-plagued vacation in Texas, come what may.

As it has on Iraq, the Bush team has adopted a "look forward, not back" strategy of communication, relying on vague generalities about the future to smother the past and current setbacks. They try to mobilize the short national attention span as an ally in the era of the 24-7 news cycle.

But that shortsighted approach can only erode confidence and support for the long-haul endeavors of reconstructing America's Gulf Coast and providing stability in the Middle East's Persian Gulf region. Reports of yet another "new" military approach in Iraq can only inspire shudders of concern or disbelief at this point. Saying that rebuilding New Orleans is "going to cost whatever it's going to cost" is an arrogant dismissal of serious concerns about huge budget deficits and about the wisdom of defying Mother Nature once again.

A Clifford-like message to Bush should include suggestions for a one-time federal tax surcharge, of perhaps 1 percent, to help a carefully controlled rebuilding effort after Katrina and Rita; a bold stripping out of the additional layers of bureaucracy added in post-Sept. 11 panic to the Department of Homeland Security and the national intelligence community; and an ironclad commitment to rid the administration of cronies and contracting shortcuts that destroy confidence in government.

Similar steps must be urged for Iraq, where Bush has overlooked corruption and incompetence on the part of Iraqi clients of the CIA while backing that agency's punitive campaign against less-pliable Iraqi nationalists such as Ahmed Chalabi and a less obvious effort to undermine Jalal Talabani because of his ties to Iran. Bush needs to resolve the lingering disputes in his administration over a broad counterterrorism strategy that will include a persistent effort to "name and shame" the fanatics who promote al Qaeda's ideology in the Muslim world.

These messages need to be delivered with a candor, lack of self-interest and freedom from personal consequences that Karl Rove or even Vice President Cheney cannot attain. A brief search for the person who could be Bush's Clifford came up with one name: Roland Betts, a successful New York businessman, lawyer, former public schoolteacher in Harlem, senior fellow of the Yale Corporation and a Bush friend since college. How about it, Mr. Betts? It's now or never.


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