White House Would Have Its Political Wing, Officially or Not

By Michael A. Fletcher
Monday, July 16, 2007

Have Congressional overseers have their hands full investigating the deeds and, they allege, misdeeds of the White House Office of Political Affairs. Did the office's involvement in the firing of the nine U.S. attorneys cross the line? What about its staff's use of Republican National Committee e-mail accounts? Did its minions improperly seek to enlist executive agencies to help GOP candidates?

Intriguing questions, all. But so is this one: Why is there a taxpayer-funded political office in the White House to begin with?

The White House Web site says the office's role is to ensure that the executive branch and the president are "aware of the concerns of the American citizen." A better way to put it, some presidential scholars say, is that the office's job is to further the president's political interests.

The office came into being under President Ronald Reagan, though modern presidents have always had staffers assigned to political tasks. But the role has only grown as successive administrations have sought to tighten their grip on the sprawling federal government.

"This is also part of a longer-term trend in the presidency to internalize capacity that had previously been external to the White House," said James P. Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.

Just as the presidential personnel office handles patronage work once shared by White House allies on Capitol Hill and the national parties, and the Office of Public Liaison does outreach work once done by national political parties, political strategy also has been consolidated as a White House function.

"Some of this development makes more sense than other parts of it, but most of it is inevitable," Pfiffner said. "Presidents want more control of their chaotic environment, and internalizing the capacity to deal with that environment is how they deal with it. In any case, presidential politics will always be done in the White House; the formal office merely gives presidents a budget and some titled staffers to accomplish the job."

White House Mum on Taylor's Testimony

So while former White House political director Sara M. Taylor sat in the Senate klieg light last week trying to figure out which questions might violate executive privilege and which ones might not, where were the White House lawyers?

White House counsel Fred F. Fielding had sent Taylor a letter telling her she should not discuss internal communications, but no one from the White House bothered to show up to tell her what those might be. That left Taylor, a 32-year-old non-lawyer, to figure it out for herself, aided by her private attorney, W. Neil Eggleston, who is paid to keep her out of trouble, not to protect the White House.

"We were lonely at the hearing, making judgments about the application of the White House claim of privilege," Eggleston said later. "I kept hoping my cellphone would ring."

Taylor gamely tried to steer clear of crossing Fielding's line without angering the senators too much. When she was asked a series of questions about whether she met with President Bush on the U.S. attorney matter and whether he was involved, on Eggleston's advice she refused to say, worried that those questions might go too far. But during a break, Eggleston changed his mind and decided she should go ahead and answer those questions, reasoning that the mere existence of meetings -- or lack thereof, since she said Bush wasn't involved -- should not violate confidentiality.

If the White House objected to that change in interpretation, no one was there to say. And the White House chose not to explain later why that was. "Sara was represented by able counsel who had informed the committee that she would respect the president's direction," said spokesman Tony Fratto.

But Fielding avoided the whole issue the next day by telling his predecessor, former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, not to even show up for a House subcommittee that had subpoenaed her.

Cheney Revealed -- in Bookstores Soon

Coming soon to bookstores near you is a new biography of Vice President Cheney, a man who has been part of "some of the most consequential decisions in recent American history," as the HarperCollins public relations folks put it. "Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President" was penned by Weekly Standard senior writer Stephen F. Hayes, who was granted extraordinary access for this project.

In an author's note, Hayes says he had nearly 30 hours of interviews with the press-wary vice president -- which by itself stands as an achievement. Hayes also says that he interviewed some 600 people to chronicle the life of the vice president -- his childhood in Nebraska, his dropping out of Yale, his hardworking and hard-drinking electrical lineman days in Wyoming, his return to college and his long rise to his current perch as the 46th vice president in American history.

If much of the public views the unpopular Cheney as a kind of Darth Vader of the West Wing, Hayes is more simpatico with the vice president. The author's long series of conversations with Cheney yielded a few nuggets, including that Cheney opposed Bush's decision to oust his former boss and longtime friend Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld after last fall's midterm elections.

For more than two years, Cheney was among those in the administration who stood against then-Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and argued for Rumsfeld to keep his job. The book reports that a couple of months after Rumsfeld's ouster, Cheney made it clear as he prepared for an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" that if asked whether he agreed with Rumsfeld's firing, he would answer "absolutely not." As it turns out, the question was not asked.

The book also addresses Cheney's frequently mocked observation that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes," which he said two years ago on "Larry King Live."

"It was obviously wrong," Cheney said.

An Ambassador to Libya After 35 Years

President Bush last week announced plans to nominate Gene A. Cretz to be ambassador to Libya. If confirmed, Cretz would be the first U.S. ambassador to the north African nation in 35 years. Cretz's nomination comes just over a year after the U.S. restored full diplomatic relations with Libya, which the U.S. long viewed as a terrorist state.

Last year, the U.S. removed Libya from the list of designated state sponsors of terrorism, a move made in response to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's renunciation of terrorism and abandonment of its nuclear program following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The nomination coincided with a visit to Libya by the president's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Fran Townsend.

Quote of the Week (Almost)

"There's no truth to the rumor some of those new seats can be ejected by pressing a button at Tony's podium."

-- A line that President Bush did not deliver from his prepared remarks for last week's reopening of the renovated White House briefing room. A Reuters photographer snapped a picture of the text with the line crossed out in black ink.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company