News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

'Indispensable': Does It Have a Shelf Life?


WASHINGTON — When revelations surfaced last week that Karl Rove had secretly talked to reporters about a C.I.A. operative, some critics demanded the senior adviser be swiftly swept from the corridors of power.

But Mr. Rove is not just any staff member. He is, by most accounts, the definition of an indispensable aide - at once "the architect" of Republican gains, as Mr. Bush dubbed him after the 2004 elections, as well as a nexus of politics and policy within the West Wing, his office constantly abuzz with communications from Congress, grassroots groups, other branches of the administration and Republican operatives nationwide.

As the drama of the C.I.A. leak continued to unfold last week with news that, despite claims to the contrary two years ago, Mr. Rove in fact had talked to reporters about the case - strategists marveled at the apparent strength of his footing despite the controversy engulfing the White House. In fact, history suggests it would take far more than the taint of impropriety for anyone so central to be cut loose.

Only a few presidential confidants as indispensable as Mr. Rove have ever been thrown overboard, and then reluctantly. Sherman Adams, the chief of staff to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, left the White House in a cloud of scandal in 1958 after accepting a vicuna fur coat from a business friend who had interests at the White House.

Bert Lance, a close adviser of President Jimmy Carter and director of the Office of Management and Budget, was forced out in 1977 because of charges he had mismanaged the bank he ran before the election.

So far, there is no proof that Mr. Rove committed any wrongdoing, let alone anything illegal: while he spoke to two journalists about Valerie Wilson, a C.I.A. operative whose husband went to Niger on a fact-finding mission about weapons of mass destruction, the accounts so far suggest Mr. Rove merely confirmed what the journalists already knew. The original source of Ms. Wilson's identity has not been made public, and Mr. Rove's lawyer says he is not a target of the special prosecutor's inquiry.

Politically, furthermore, many Republicans do not believe Mr. Rove has yet become seriously damaged goods - and that the bar for him, while not so impossibly high, is higher than it would be even for advisers with as direct a line to the president as Mr. Adams or Mr. Lance.

"How many people have been in a position like Karl's?" said William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative magazine. The standard of proof, he said, is much higher than it would be for the average staffer, who could be dismissed just for bringing negative publicity to the administration.

Yet, is there a tipping point, where the presence of Mr. Rove would simply not be worth the unwanted attention that goes with it?

Democrats gleefully embraced a poll released Wednesday showing a drop in the public's faith in Mr. Bush as evidence Mr. Rove's troubles were taking a toll. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 45 percent of those surveyed gave Mr. Bush low points for his personal integrity, compared with 41 percent who had confidence in it - a sharp reversal for a president whose character has been the backbone of his presidency.

One former Republican official who retains close ties to the White House said there could be a political cost for keeping Mr. Rove on board even if he is found to have done nothing illegal. "If Karl survives, he does so at the president's political expense," said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as disloyal to Mr. Rove.

"George W. Bush came into office promising two tenets that are in competition now: straight talk, non-parsing - and loyalty," the former official said. "He's either got to choose loyalty or straight talk. He can't do both."

But there are few historical models for the ousting of a figure like Mr. Rove. There is the save-the-sinking ship model. When the Nixon administration began to unravel, because of Watergate, three of Richard Nixon's most trusted aides - H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff; Richard Kleindienst, the attorney general; and John Ehrlichman, the domestic policy adviser - had to go, in order to try to save the president himself. No presidency before or since has seen such upheaval at its highest echelons.

There is the morally unacceptable model. Walter Jenkins was President Lyndon Johnson's close friend and adviser for 25 years, when he was charged with having sex with a man in bathroom at a Y.M.C.A. one block from the White House. The timing could not have been worse, the middle of the 1964 presidential campaign. President Johnson was forced to ask for his resignation.

And there is the "we never liked him" model. When John H. Sununu, the chief of staff during the George H. W. Bush administration, was let go, it was after a consensus reached by a number of powerful other advisers - including the president's son. The official firing offense was Mr. Sununu's ostentatious use of government airplanes for private travel. But it was grounded in years of hostility between Mr. Sununu and other Republicans of the sort that Mr. Rove has not created.

None of these models applies to Karl Rove. In fact, it is difficult to imagine intervention by other political power brokers without the consent of Mr. Rove himself.

As speculation about Mr. Rove's fate stirred last week, several Republicans suggested that it would take nothing less than personal outrage from Mr. Bush, backed up by his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., or perhaps a forceful stand by Vice President Cheney, to launch a discussion within the Bush administration of firing Mr. Rove.

And outsiders urging his ouster could well work in Mr. Rove's favor. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's head was demanded by liberals after the Iraq war did not go as well as he estimated, the administration seemed to take pleasure in keeping him on.

"The Bush operating style is, you be loyal to me, I'll be loyal back to you - and I'm not going to let my critics think they can prompt a lot of resignations just by pointing out that we said we'd fire them," said Professor Stephen Walt, academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

But, Mr. Walt said: "With Bush now being a lame duck, you start to wonder whether or not he'll have the same clout. At what point does the R.N.C. start weighing in and saying, 'Gee, we know he can't run again. But do we want to be saddled with a scandal that will make it harder for us to win in 2008?' "


Post a Comment

<< Home