A New Moment of Truth For a White House in Crisis

By Dan Balz and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 29, 2005

With yesterday's indictment of Vice President Cheney's top aide, President Bush's administration has become a textbook example of what can go wrong in a second term. Along with ineffectiveness, overreaching, intraparty rebellion, plunging public confidence and plain bad luck, scandal has now touched the highest levels of the White House staff.

Not surprisingly, Democrats were quick to condemn the president and his administration over the perjury and obstruction indictments of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. But even some Republicans suggested that the president and his team will have taken away the wrong lesson if they conclude that, other than the personal tragedy of Libby's indictment, the long investigation changes nothing of significance.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) was stinging, saying he was "very disappointed in Libby, and the White House, and the vice president and the president."

"They should have taken care of this a long time ago," Davis said in an interview. "They should have done their own investigation. They're going to get very little sympathy on Capitol Hill, at least from me. . . . They brought this on themselves."

The indictment of Libby, but no colleagues, was not the devastating blow that some in the administration had feared. But the action of Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald nonetheless added to the sense that this is now an administration staggering to regain its equilibrium. The question now facing the embattled president is whether he will use this moment of vulnerability to reflect on what has gone wrong this year and why, and then look for ways to regain his effectiveness.

Citing both the indictment and the withdrawal of Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court on Thursday, former GOP congressman Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma said: "The president got a pretty good wake-up call. He needs to stop thinking about his grand legacy and being the all-time hero of the Republicans and concentrate on doing the job he was elected to do. He really has to get a grip on his administration."

Some GOP loyalists dismissed yesterday's indictment as a blip that will quickly be forgotten. "If we are going to reach conclusions about stains on the presidency, let's wait until he's [Libby] convicted," said veteran GOP strategist Charles R. Black. Calling Bush's administration "remarkably clean," he added: "The amazing thing is that they went almost five years without having any kind of scandal."

Things could have been worse. Fitzgerald did not indict White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the president's most influential adviser, although Rove remains under investigation. Nor did he conclude that any administration official had deliberately leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame -- the original basis for the probe -- or draw any conclusions about whether the administration had deliberately deceived the American people about the rationale for going to war in Iraq.

But there is little way for administration officials to adopt the pose of business as usual with Libby under indictment. His departure from the White House staff removes a critically important player in the office of the most powerful vice president in the nation's history. His absence will put additional strain on a White House staff already suffering from fatigue, as the botched Supreme Court nomination of Miers and the response to Hurricane Katrina have demonstrated.

GOP allies of the White House moved yesterday to insulate the president from the fallout of the Libby indictment by contrasting yesterday's action with previous White House scandals such as the Iran-contra affair that hit Ronald Reagan in his second term or the Monica S. Lewinsky episode that led to President Bill Clinton's impeachment.

"They all involved the president," said veteran GOP strategist Ron Kaufman. "This involves staff." Bill Paxon, a Republican former congressman from New York, said, "There is no one suggesting that this Oval Office occupant has anything to do with this matter."

But Bush is hardly immune from the problems that now surround his presidency. David C. King, associate director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, said the president might benefit from a public admission of mistakes on his watch. "He can at least give the appearance of being open to criticism and being willing to change," especially in light of the fact that "there is a larger question in this administration of whether there is willingness to hear dissent," King said.

The Iran-contra scandal led to a housecleaning in Reagan's White House, and yesterday, Kenneth M. Duberstein, who came into the White House after the scandal and later served as Reagan's chief of staff, recommended on CNN's "The Situation Room" that Bush consider bringing in new players to provide an infusion of fresh thinking to his inner circle. No one, however, is predicting changes of that significance in Bush's team.

John D. Podesta, who was chief of staff to Clinton, said Bush may be more constrained by his troubles than Clinton was by his. Noting that Clinton's approval ratings remained above 60 percent throughout the impeachment battle, while Bush's are in the low 40s, Podesta said, "When Clinton said, 'I'm going back to do my work,' people cheered," Podesta said. "When Bush says, 'I'm going to do the job I've been doing,' people say, 'Oh, no.' "

At the top of the list of public concerns about Bush's policies is Iraq, with festering unease about the mission evident in every sampling of public opinion in recent months. The long leak investigation and the Libby indictment threaten to rekindle the debate over how the United States went to war, only this time with the administration, rather than Bush's opponents, on the defensive.

Given that reality, it may be difficult for Bush to regain the credibility he enjoyed earlier in his presidency with regard to the war on terrorism. "I very much doubt they will be able to repair the damage," said Tom De Luca, a professor of political science at Fordham University. "Once you lose credibility, it's almost impossible to get it back."

More than Bush's credibility is on the line. White House officials face questions about their blanket denials that anyone in the White House was involved in the Plame affair, statements that now appear at odds with the facts.

Democrats were quick to portray Libby's indictment as yet another example of the GOP's broader ethical woes, a theme they have been trying to promote as the backdrop to the coming midterm election campaign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a short statement saying, "The criminal indictments of a top White House official mark a sad day for America and another chapter in the Republicans' culture of corruption."

But Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) echoed Democrats' complaints that Americans deserve better from White House staffers and urged Bush to condemn Libby more forcefully because he had campaigned in 2000 as someone who would provide a sharp contrast to the tumult of the Clinton years.

"They wanted the president to restore honor and integrity to the White House," Shays said. "Whatever agenda the president wants to pursue, if he hasn't reestablished a strong ethical standard, he's going to fail. . . . Americans don't like to be lied to."

That sums up the challenge ahead for the president. Whether this leads to changes that begin to put the administration back on track is now squarely in Bush's hands.

Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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