WASHINGTON — The White House seems to breed arrogance. President Richard Nixon had his enemies list. President Bill Clinton’s personal irresponsibility almost ruined his presidency. Now vice presidential aide “Scooter” Libby has been indicted as a result of his efforts to discredit an administration critic.
President George W. Bush & Co. routinely vilify his detractors, even conservatives. When previous Bush supporters unexpectedly opposed his nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court, administration and Republican Party apparatchiks immediately attacked their critics’ motives.
That didn’t work, so the president’s friends then threatened to toss conservatives into outer darkness. One anonymous former presidential aide told Time Magazine: “They’re crazy to take him on this frontally. Not many people have done that with George Bush and lived to tell about it.”
Presumably the informant was speaking metaphorically, since the president has left no trail of bodies on his march from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C. Still, the administration has been notable for its policy of punishing not the architects of its costly policy failures, but those who, like economic adviser Larry Lindsey and Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, correctly warned of the ill consequences.
The administration seems to demand not loyalty, but sycophancy. The president does not err; certainly his underlings should not suggest that he does.
That subservient attitude was suggested by Harriet Miers’ embarrassingly fulsome words for Bush. It is one thing to admire the politician for whom one works. It is something else to lavish praise upon him, praise for virtues (being the most “brilliant” of men, for instance) that no one else recognizes.
But it is difficult to maintain this astonishing level of sycophancy much beyond the uniquely naive and those whose jobs are at stake. Most ideological conservatives are neither, supporting politicians for their practical actions rather than their intrinsic natures.
Nevertheless, for nearly five years many conservatives backed the administration even as the president trampled their most cherished principles — wildly increasing spending, centralizing power in Washington, and failing to hold anyone accountable for the Iraq disaster. The predominant view of politics as us versus them was enough to keep most conservatives in line.
Thus, an administration used to compliant supporters was understandably shocked by the sudden outbreak of free-thinking on the right. What the White House failed to consider was the central importance of the Supreme Court.
One of the most important reasons conservatives supported Bush was to overturn decades of judicial activism; Bush’s use of the court as a sinecure for a longtime friend deeply offended them. And no amount of claiming that the position was his to fill could win them back.
The administration could have responded by emphasizing Miers’ outstanding qualifications, if there were any of substance. Instead, the White House noted how she had chaired the lottery commission, was an evangelical Christian, personally opposed abortion, and was a very nice person. None of which were relevant to whether she would be a competent, let alone distinguished, justice.
So the administration adopted a different strategy, playing the vilification card. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie told conservative activists that he had detected a “whiff” of elitism and sexism in their opposition. First lady Laura Bush made a similar attack on national television.
These attacks were obviously false. In fact, several of the most important judicial candidates favored by the right are women; the activists most upset by the Miers choice cared far more about her lack of jurisprudential vision than prestigious academic pedigree.
Of course, the administration knew that its charges were untrue. But it saw no reason to let honesty get in the way of browbeating its opponents.
These same presidential advocates were also willing to threaten political retaliation, which caused some conservatives to offer formal support for Miers while criticizing her nomination in private. Those counting on administration support for their own purposes were loath to offer even the most modest criticism.
This is no way to choose a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
When George W. Bush first ran for president, he spoke of the importance of humility. But that characteristic is sadly absent from his administration.
Bush has irrevocably sacrificed the trust that he insisted others should have in him. Presidential hubris has appropriately been brought low.