By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Bill Clinton is a "virtuoso deceiver" and Hillary Rodham Clinton a "true chameleon" guilty of "self-serving behavior, comparative radicalism, and dubious personal morality."
Al Gore is a "mad dog" known to "foam at the mouth." John McCain is given to "showboating." And Jacques Chirac, Nelson Mandela, Gerhard Schroeder and Kofi Annan are all "feckless fools."
Says who? President Bush's new chief domestic policy adviser. While most White House aides carefully trim their public commentary, they can't take back what they said before arriving in the West Wing, and few in this day and age arrive with a more provocative paper trail than Karl Zinsmeister, who started his new job yesterday.
For a dozen years until his appointment, Zinsmeister held forth on all manner of issues and personalities as editor in chief of the American Enterprise Institute's magazine. With a sharp pen, he skewered the left, taking special aim at environmentalists, anti-globalists, feminists, contemporary artists, university faculties, Hollywood, Broadway and particularly the media, composed mainly of "left-wing, cynical, wiseguy Ivy League types, with a high prima donna quotient."
A review of years of articles reveals a formidable thinker with a powerful sense of what he considers right and wrong. As Zinsmeister sees it, racial profiling by the police makes sense; the military, if anything, treats terrorist suspects too gently; and casual sex has led to wrecked cities, violence and "endless human misery." In a "soft, often amoral, and self-indulgent age," he warned, some children "will be ruined without a whip hand," and he assured that "things generally go better with God."
Although Zinsmeister wrote admiringly of Bush, his future boss was not exempt from remonstration when he seemed to stray. Zinsmeister chided candidate Bush for promising he would make it easier for legal immigrants to bring in relatives and questioned whether incumbent Bush "actually has a soft spot for big government."
"Though he talks a good line about battling government bloat," he wrote this year, "our current President has shown an eerie lackawanna when it comes to actually keeping a lid on the federal Pandora's box. Quite apart from Katrina or the war on terror, there has been a pattern of troublesome spending spikes right from the beginning of the Bush Administration."
For Zinsmeister, provocation has been his stock in trade. "That's kind of my M.O., for better or worse," he said by phone last week. "My main beef with much of the Washington discussion is you're forced to be so mealy-mouthed. I had the luxury as an outsider of being as blunt as I wanted. When you're outside trying to push the elephant even an inch, you have to be very crisp and uncouched."
But Zinsmeister said he understands that must change now that he advises the president. "When you're inside the tent, you have to shift gears. That's a double standard, but it's an appropriate one."
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joel D. Kaplan said he believes that Zinsmeister will be able to make that transition. "He's here because of his powerful intellect and reputation for outside-the-box solutions to public policy problems," Kaplan said. "An outside-the-Beltway perspective, we thought, would be helpful."
In his new post, Zinsmeister will oversee the president's domestic policy process and help shape White House positions on a wide array of issues, including immigration, Social Security and energy. The position has been key in past administrations, although in this White House, it has at times been overshadowed by other aides such as Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. Zinsmeister's predecessor, Claude A. Allen, resigned after being accused of trying to fleece retail stores in a product-exchange scam.
With scant experience in government or campaigns, Zinsmeister seemed an unlikely choice for White House domestic policy chief. Until his appointment, he was little known in Washington. At 6 feet 5, he would have stood out in the capital, but he edited the American Enterprise magazine from Cazenovia in Upstate New York. He finds Washington so distasteful that even for his new job he plans to move his family no closer than Baltimore.
In fact, his antipathy for Washington got him in trouble when he was appointed. In a 2004 profile by the Syracuse New Times, Zinsmeister was quoted as saying, "People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings." But the New York Sun discovered last month that he doctored that and other quotes when he posted the profile on the AEI Web site. The edited quote said, "I learned in Washington that there is an 'overclass' in this country stocked with cheating, shifty human beings that's just as morally repugnant as our 'underclass.' "
Zinsmeister later said he was "foolish" to change the quotes and did so only because he had been misquoted. The New Times disputed that and denounced him for altering its account. White House spokesman Tony Snow defended him and described Zinsmeister as someone with "sharp elbows" who "expresses himself with a certain amount of piquancy."
Another question about Zinsmeister's past arose when he was accused of résumé padding by Greg Sargent on a blog, The Horse's Mouth, hosted by The American Prospect, a liberal magazine. The White House release said he "founded" the American Enterprise, although the magazine had been around for four years when he took over in 1994. The White House took the blame, saying that Zinsmeister actually used the term "formulated" because he revamped the magazine but that a White House aide misunderstood and wrote "founded."
A native of Cazenovia, Zinsmeister, 47, is himself an "Ivy League type" who graduated from Yale University before working for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and serving on an Education Department advisory board. He has also worked as a writer, film producer and radio commentator.
At the American Enterprise Institute, Zinsmeister stood out in a think tank known for a more libertarian, economic conservatism. Beyond cultural and social issues, he also took a special interest in Iraq. Unlike most pundits, he embedded with U.S. troops four times to get a firsthand look. The result has been two books on the war, a Marvel Comics chronicle of soldiers in Iraq and a forthcoming PBS documentary.
His faith in U.S. power translated into an optimistic view of the war. In 2003, he mocked the BBC for asserting the United States "could take, bluntly, a couple to 3,000 casualties." Later that year, he wrote, "Not too far down the road, today's drumbeat about America's failure to bring instant recovery to Iraq may look quite rash."
A year later, he wrote a piece titled "How America Is Winning a Guerilla War." A year after that, he declared victory. "The War is Over, and We Won," announced a June 2005 piece. "With the exception of periodic flare-ups in isolated corners, our struggle in Iraq as warfare is over," he wrote. Although there will still be "egregious acts of terror," he said, "contrary to the impression given by most newspaper headlines, the United States has won the day in Iraq."
Media coverage of the war has been a favorite target. He called journalists who embedded in 2003 "whiny and appallingly soft," and later condemned the "relentlessly gloomy reporting." In March, he wrote, "More than perhaps any news event in a generation, coverage of the Iraq war has been unbalanced and incomplete."
Although Bush avoids casting terrorism as a battle with Islam, Zinsmeister has not been so reluctant. "First, let's recognize that we're in a full-blown war; that (contrary to mealy-mouthed platitudes) it is indeed a war against a considerable part of Islam," he wrote in 2001. Yet he fretted at American sensitivity. "Would you believe that the number of formal U.S. investigations of how terror detainees are being treated recently reached 189?" he wrote last fall. "What mad self-doubt and softness!"
Foreign policy won't fall under his new portfolio, but he has written extensively on social issues that will, such as race, class and culture. He has condemned "feminist absolutism," "Green irrationality," "limousine leftists" and "the dreary left-wing, homophilic P.C. propaganda that has dominated Broadway."
Zinsmeister lamented a "forced diversity crusade" that fuels more alienation than it solves and argued that "Americans should jettison affirmative action and all racial preferences." He dismissed reparations for slavery as "a clear absurdity" because "the U.S. already made a mighty payment for the sin of slavery. It was called the Civil War." He traces wrongheaded political correctness to colleges that have become "virtual one-party states, ideological monopolies, badly unbalanced ecosystems."
The Clintons in particular are anathema. He is "a chronic liar, an out-of-control adulterer, an obstructer of justice, a draft dodger, an all-round morally challenged sleazeball." She has shown "a disturbing pattern of reflexive truth-stretching and reality-doctoring."
At a time when Bush has lost support among some conservatives, Zinsmeister's appointment may reassure some of the disaffected in the party that a strong voice will be heard in the White House. Snow said Zinsmeister will be useful for his challenging viewpoints.
"You want interesting people who are smart, who have serious policy credentials and who are able to make other people think," Snow said. But not necessarily, he added, in public anymore. "I think he'll be careful with his words."