By David Ignatius
Friday, March 23, 2007
If you read the obituary pages of The Post each morning, you encounter the kinds of people who are being trashed by the Bush administration's contempt for public servants. On a typical day, perhaps a third of the obits feature such people -- career lawyers at the Justice Department; intelligence analysts at the CIA; researchers in government agencies.
These weren't fancy Beltway insiders. They weren't famous enough to be asked their opinions on "Hardball" or "The McLaughlin Group." They were civil servants who came to Washington in the 1940s, '50 and '60s with their university degrees and a touch of idealism because they wanted to make a difference. They were the mainstays of the churches and synagogues and volunteer organizations of this region, the people who stayed late to clean up after everybody else had gone home.
Who were they? This week's obits included an 86-year-old research physicist with the Navy; a 57-year-old Justice Department trial lawyer; an 86-year-old administrative law judge; an 85-year-old Foreign Service officer who served with her husband in Saigon, Kabul and Rome; a 95-year-old woman who was a CIA officer for 25 years; an 87-year-old woman who served in the Women's Army Corps in World War II and stayed on at the Pentagon. If you've ever talked to people at a retirement home in the Washington area, you know how passionate they can be about good government. They gave up money and prominence because they believed in public service.
What infuriates me about the Bush administration is its disdain for people like these. You sense that scorn reading the e-mails that have surfaced in the flap over the firings of U.S. attorneys. I don't think the story is much of a scandal. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, and he can fire whomever he wants. What interests me about the Justice e-mails is that they are a piece of sociology, documenting the mind-set of the young hotshots and ideologues who populate the Bush administration.
Here's Kyle Sampson, now-deposed chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, griping about a U.S. attorney in Phoenix who had the effrontery to want to make his case personally: "In the 'you won't believe this category,' Paul Charlton would like a few minutes of the AG's time." And here's Brent Ward, the director of a Justice Department task force who made his name as an anti-pornography crusader grumbling that he doesn't want to deal with the U.S. attorney in Las Vegas: "To go out to LV and sit and listen to the lame excuses of a defiant U.S. attorney is only going to move this whole enterprise closer to catastrophe."
The Bush political operatives have become the people the Republicans once warned the country against -- a club of insiders who seem to think that they're better than other folks. They are so contemptuous of government and the public servants who populate it that they have been unable to govern effectively. They are a smug, inward-looking elite that thinks it knows who the good guys are by the political labels they wear.
This contempt has been evident in many of the administration's failures. The disastrous incompetence of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 flowed from its status as a clubhouse for ambitious conservatives eager to punch a political ticket in a country they knew nothing about. The political purges that enfeebled the CIA in 2005 were the work of a conservative former member of Congress, Porter Goss, and a coterie of political aides he brought from Capitol Hill who thought they knew more about intelligence than career professionals. The administration's signature failure, its bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was the work of a right-wing political appointee who knew almost nothing about disaster management and who scorned many of the bureaucrats who worked for him.
After Katrina, it became clear that the public wanted a change. Americans want to be confident that those in charge of the country's business are members of what I call "the party of competence," whatever their political affiliation. The anguish of Iraq deepened that message, and the 2006 congressional elections codified it. But the Bush administration didn't get it. The purge at Justice came after the November election blowout. They acted as if they were still on a roll.
Here's the challenge for the Democrats: Become the party that fixes things, that solves problems, that respects expertise and professionalism. Let the GOP be the party of smart alecks and know-it-alls and smirking e-mail writers. The Republicans have made a bed of political arrogance; let them sleep in it for a good long while.
The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.