Long before Michael D. Brown became the poster boy for the overwhelmed and lightly qualified political appointee in Washington, there was Craig Livingstone, a former barroom bouncer who dreamed of bigger things and found them in the Clinton White House.
Livingstone parlayed a stint as an advance man for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign into a White House job as head of personnel security. He relished the clout of handling background checks of White House employees, swaggering around the West Wing in dark glasses and attending film premieres with beautiful women.
It was all a prologue to a fall. Livingstone quit in June 1996 amid a scandal over the improper requisitioning of more than 400 FBI background reports on employees from previous administrations, most of them Republicans, purportedly in a misguided attempt to clean up the White House access list. Within a few years, he was driving a limousine to make ends meet.
The Livingstone case is a reminder that Brown, a former International Arabian Horse Association commissioner who was just forced out as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is not so much an aberration as part of a pattern in Washington.
Administrations of both political parties have long track records of appointing cronies who are out of their depth to key executive branch positions, only to see them disappoint or fail, sometimes spectacularly. Such patronage is an artifact of the "spoils system" that President Andrew Jackson brought into office in the 1830s, in which government jobs were doled out as rewards for partisan loyalists, regardless of whether they were qualified.
"You try to help the hands that helped you," said Paul C. Light, a government professor at New York University.
The practice is especially common in the naming of U.S. ambassadors, many of whom earned their posts on the strength of their fundraising prowess. What may be different now, one veteran diplomat said, is that President Bush is putting these people in some key countries, such as Germany and Japan, instead of smaller European and Caribbean postings.
And so it was that in 2001, Bush nominated as ambassador to France Howard H. Leach, a San Francisco financier who raised $100,000 for Bush's presidential bid but did not speak French. (The French noticed.)
There was Deborah Gore Dean, a Georgetown socialite and the niece of onetime Maryland GOP leader Louise Gore, who used her family and social connections to land a top staff job under then-Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1984.
In 1993, she was convicted of funneling federal funds to GOP insiders as part of a $2 billion influence-peddling scandal at HUD. Sentenced to 21 months in prison, Dean, who became an antiques dealer, stayed out of jail through appeals until 2002, when she was resentenced to six months of home confinement.
Some analysts say the trend is worsening, as more appointees view a government post as an opportunity to build a resume and cultivate ties that will serve them well in the private sector. "No question about it," said Light, who has studied 40 years of interviews with political appointees. "We've gone from the 'we' generation of presidential appointees to the 'me' generation."
Although the overmatched appointee and the White House get splattered by the political mess when things go wrong, lawmakers on Capitol Hill bear some blame as well. The Senate confirms the president's choices for many political positions.
Senate scrutiny of many nominees is almost pro forma, especially these days when one party is dominant in Washington, said Steven L. Katz, a former Democratic staffer on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The attitude is "if the president wants them, the president has got to live with them," Katz said.
The phenomenon also owes to a personnel operation that often values political credentials over managerial ability, said Katz, a senior adviser in Clinton's presidential personnel office in 1994.
"They are not an executive search firm; they are a political search firm," Katz said. "When I worked in the Clinton administration, the influences came from the vice president's office, the first lady's office, the president's office, major political handlers, and then, don't forget, every member of the House and Senate will write in with a request."
The fruits of such a process are not hard to see.
Take Christopher B. Burnham, a former investment banker and Bush fundraiser who this year was tapped to be undersecretary for the department of management at the United Nations. Burnham caused a stir in July when he said that, professionally, his "primary loyalty is to the United States." The United Nations quickly issued a "clarification on his behalf," saying that Burnham took an oath of loyalty to the United Nations and "understands that his professional obligation is to the United Nations and the Secretary-General."
During the Clinton era, White House director of administration David Watkins lasted just over a year before he was forced to resign in May 1994 after famously taking the presidential helicopter for a golf outing near Camp David. Watkins, the chief financial officer of Clinton's 1992 campaign, was a longtime friend of Clinton's from his home town of Hope, Ark., and a sometime business associate of Hillary Rodham Clinton's in the 1980s.
Favored but under-credentialed appointees often are dispatched to "turkey farms," select corners of federal agencies where it is presumed they can do little harm, said political scientist Donald F. Kettl of the University of Pennsylvania. It does not always work out that way, as Brown's stint at FEMA illustrates.
"People who run for the presidency often put so much emphasis on the race that they forget to stop to ask themselves what they are going to do with the prize when they get it," Kettl said. "They forget that so much of the work of government is governing. But every once in a while, we have a case like this where really truly terrible things happen because of a lack of capacity. And then we have to learn the lesson all over again that the game isn't over when the election is done."