Team Bush

By placing White House loyalists in key Cabinet departments, President Bush has moved to solidify his control of the government in his second term.

Recent revelations about Deep Throat, the stealthy source who kept The Washington Post on top of the early days of the Watergate scandal, recall one of the great morality tales of presidential second terms. According to H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, chief of staff to President Nixon, it was his boss's fervor to consolidate power over the federal bureaucracy after his re-election in 1972 that ultimately was his undoing.

"Reorganization is the secret story of Watergate," Haldeman wrote in his 1978 book on the scandal, The Ends of Power. Haldeman believed that the executive branch restructuring that the president pursued "eventually spurred into action against Nixon the great power blocs of Washington." And thus the No. 2 man at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mark Felt, became the most famous anonymous source in journalism.

But even Haldeman at times recoiled at Nixon's "personal obsessions" for tightening his grip on Washington, as in this outburst that Haldeman recounted in his book: " 'Let's remember the VA,' " Nixon raged. " 'Clean those bastards out.... Now on that, take the Park Service, they've been screwing us for four years.' "

It's hard to imagine a rant like that from the current occupant of the Oval Office, but it would be a mistake to underestimate George W. Bush's equally purposeful steps to solidify his control over the government during his second term. Indeed, Bush's replacement of nine Cabinet secretaries between his re-election and second inauguration is matched in the postwar era only by Nixon's housecleaning following his 1972 landslide victory. Nixon and his advisers, though, plotted a "revolution" and a streamlined "super-Cabinet" that would direct domestic policy from offices in the White House. Bush, by contrast, is seeking to extend his authority by sending his West Wing out to trouble spots in the Cabinet.

Condoleezza Rice, the former national security adviser, replaced independent-minded Colin Powell as secretary of State; former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales supplanted John Ashcroft, a lightning rod for legal controversies, as attorney general; and Margaret Spellings, Bush's chief domestic policy adviser, succeeded Education Secretary Roderick Paige, who was unable to quell local revolts against the No Child Left Behind Act, which Spellings helped shepherd through Congress in 2002.

It's not surprising that Bush is drawing on key West Wing advisers to stock his Cabinet. Like any other president, he's taken their measure in close quarters and has a comfort level with them. And where else would Bush turn?

The president is not a consummate networker like his predecessor, Bill Clinton. When Clinton captured the White House in 1992, he tapped his extensive sets of connections -- from his Rhodes scholar days, his 12-year run as governor of Arkansas, his chairmanships of the Democratic Governors' Association and the Democratic Leadership Council, and even his wife's own impressive list of contacts -- to form a government.

When Bush ran in 2000, the one-and-a-half-term governor had a tight circle of trusted Texas lieutenants, including Karl Rove and Karen Hughes. After he won, he expanded this circle with such people as future Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who had served in the White House and Cabinet of Bush's father.

Bush took most of them to the White House and filled out the rest of the government with Bush 41 alumni: In 2001, a National Journal survey found that 43 percent of Bush's top appointees had worked for his dad. Today, it's less of a "son of" administration -- only 28 percent of Bush's top officials were in his father's government, according to a similar NJ survey this year.

Rice and Spellings have the White House cachet, but they join two other well-regarded women in Bush's Cabinet, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Interior Secretary Gale Norton. In a Republican administration, neither of these first-term holdovers has an enviable job; they oversee departments that are often flash points with two key Democratic constituency groups -- unions and environmentalists. But their effective management of two departments that often cause headaches for Republicans is the very reason that both get high marks from GOP operatives. Without a lot of bad press, Chao and Norton have been able to advance Bush's agenda despite fierce resistance from Democratic interest groups and even some civil servants inside Labor and Interior.

Taken together, these four women represent an impressive collection of diverse strengths and talents that any four of Bush's male Cabinet secretaries might be hard-pressed to match: Rice, the Cabinet rock star who could well have a future on the national political stage; Spellings, the policy wonk who midwifed Bush's signature domestic initiative; and Norton and Chao, two lower-profile, but proven, department managers.

The deployment of other White House aides into sub-Cabinet-level jobs could be just as critical for Bush's second-term prospects. A well-placed deputy or assistant secretary with close ties to the White House can provide an early warning of potential problems.

"I think it is important, in this day of 24/7 news cycles, that you have go-to people in these departments," observed Ken Duberstein, a Reagan White House chief of staff. Sometimes it's not "the Cabinet officer, but the loyalist below, who really runs the place on the day-to-day basis."

And during second terms, when a president's clout can wane, White House loyalists can help keep the focus on the president's agenda, not Capitol Hill's or that of the department's other stakeholders.

"In a second term, you have to be careful that the tendency to spin off a bit isn't reinforced -- but rather, you continue to have the pull and tug coming from the White House," said Duberstein, who helped guide President Reagan's successful second term. "Centralized control in any administration is fundamentally important, especially as you begin to move through a second term with everyone knowing that you're not going to be on the ballot again."

Examples abound of how the Bush White House is deploying its forces to avert these problems. Brian Montgomery, the president's former secretary of the Office of Cabinet Affairs, has been dispatched to HUD to serve as the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, the nation's largest home-mortgage insurer. His path through the administration has been a familiar one for Bush lieutenants: Montgomery served in state government when Bush was governor of Texas, worked on Bush's 2000 campaign, went to the White House as presidential advance chief after that election, and rose to the position in Cabinet Affairs that he now leaves for HUD.

Claire Buchan, the former White House deputy press secretary, had a shorter move from her office in the West Wing to the Commerce Department, where she now sits as chief of staff to Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. As a communications specialist, Buchan brings a skill that can well serve a Washington newcomer like Gutierrez.

Likewise, Charles Conner, the White House special assistant for agricultural trade, has become the deputy secretary of Agriculture. A White House aide since 2001, Conner will run the day-to-day operations of a department that is trying to repair relations with elements of the farm community that didn't get along with former Secretary Ann Veneman.

Veteran Bush political operatives are also part of the White House outreach in the second term. Maria Cino, the former deputy chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, is now deputy secretary of the Transportation Department. Cino was the political director of Bush's 2000 campaign. After the election, she became the Foreign Commercial Service director at Commerce. Her pedigree in GOP politics -- she was an architect of the congressional Republican strategy that led to the takeover of the House in 1994 -- will come in handy for the Cabinet's lone Democrat, Norman Mineta.

Another political transferee is Timothy D. Adams, who has returned to the Treasury Department. A former staff economist in George H.W. Bush's White House, Adams worked on W.'s 2000 campaign and became chief of staff to Paul O'Neill, Bush's first Treasury secretary. After O'Neill was dumped in 2002, Adams signed on as Bush's 2004 campaign policy director. Now he's been nominated to be undersecretary of Treasury for international affairs, despite his relative lack of experience in that area. Like HUD's Montgomery, who also lacks the housing background that his predecessors possessed, Adams has proved himself as a loyalist and an effective team player.

Watching Bush fill Cabinet and sub-Cabinet jobs with known quantities from the White House, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said, "The No. 1 quality he seems to be looking for is loyalty -- and not people who in any way will create problems."

Another important element in exerting control over the departments is continuity in the White House itself. The chain of command starts at the top, and Bush Chief of Staff Card is approaching the record for longevity in that post. "No question, when you've got somebody who's operated as your chief of staff in your first term and into the second, by its very nature that consolidates power in the White House," said Panetta. "The president and the key member of his team, who [both] know exactly how they've been doing business, having faced these issues on policy and personnel, can read each other in how they want to handle them. That centralizes key power in that section of the West Wing."

Lost in the shuffling at the sub-Cabinet level, at least for the moment, is diversity. Although only seven of Bush's 15 secretaries are white males -- a level matching Clinton's first-term lineup, which he vowed would look like the rest of America -- Bush's supporting cast has become more homogeneous.

In June 2001, when National Journal last surveyed the top decision makers in Bush's government, 10 percent were African-Americans. Today, that share has declined to 5 percent. And while the portion of top Hispanic officials has inched up from 6 percent in 2001 to 7 percent today, that increase came after Hispanics gave substantially greater support to Bush in 2004 than in 2000 -- anywhere from 1.3 million to 1.7 million additional votes, depending on which exit poll you believe. Meanwhile, the share of Bush top officials who are non-Hispanic whites grew from 80 percent to 83 percent.

The White House has cautioned against jumping to conclusions about these figures. "There are a lot of folks in the process of being nominated, and a great number of individuals we're still looking to place," said Bush spokeswoman Erin Healy. "From our perspective, it might be a little on the premature side."

Hispanic and African-American groups that follow racial representation in government are willing to cut the administration a little slack. Noting the increase, Larry Gonzalez, the director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said, "We have a deep pool of talent in our community yet to be tapped, but it's a good start."

And David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who tracks African-Americans' involvement in party politics and the number of presidential appointments they receive, wasn't shocked by the numbers. With so few African-Americans positioned to serve in a GOP administration because of their overwhelming support for Democrats, Bositis said: "There's not a lot there to work with. My thought about Bush's first term was, Why did he have so many black appointments, given his lack of support from African-Americans?"

In the business of designing a Cabinet, ethnic politics can be tricky. Nixon Chief of Staff Haldeman recalled that at the end of the transition for the second-term Cabinet, Nixon complained, "Well, hell, we don't have one Catholic."

Nixon had one Cabinet slot left to fill, Transportation, and Haldeman contacted White House personnel chief Fred Malek. "I've got your man," Malek responded. "His name is Claude Brinegar; he's president of Union Oil of California."

Haldeman took the news back to Nixon, who said, "His name doesn't sound Catholic to me." Haldeman checked back with Malek, who assured him that not only was Brinegar Catholic, he was also Irish, a quality also missing from the Cabinet's ethnic makeup.

Haldeman wrote: "So Claude Brinegar was appointed secretary of Transportation because he was an Irish-Catholic, and two weeks after he was in office, he informed us he was a German Presbyterian."

Maybe it pays to know the people you're appointing. In his second term, Bush apparently thinks so.