White House Reporters Discuss the Wave of Resignations
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TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are David Sanger, White House correspondent for The New York Times, and Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for the National Journal. Welcome to you both.
The president is moving pretty quickly, it seems, to reshape his cabinet. Alexis, how much of this was expected, how much a surprise?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: I think a lot of it was expected.
I know my publication started doing some work on this back during the Republican National Convention and we worked hard on it in October. And a lot of this is panning out to be exactly as we were hearing.
The one thing I might add — and I think David might second this — is how stable this cabinet has been as opposed to thinking of this as a dramatic shakeup. The idea is really that this has been a very stable cabinet for four years, compared to previous presidents, and that the transitions are not only somewhat expected but actually maybe in some cases overdue, 9/11 made people stay longer than they might have otherwise.
TERENCE SMITH: David, the big headline of course involves Secretary of State Powell. Give me your read on that and what officials in the White House are telling you.
DAVID SANGER: This certainly was expected, Secretary Powell had made it fairly clear if you read his body language, if not his words, that he was going to be around for only one term.
What’s interesting is that this gives the president now this opportunity to go shape the State Department and bring it in, in a way that it really had not under Secretary Powell, a man he respected deeply but who he didn’t really connect with, and many in the White House make that point.
And that’s why the rumor this evening that Condoleezza Rice who is probably the closest person to the president in the White House now would go to that department is so interesting because it would create a direct line between the president and a State Department he’s always been a little bit suspicious of and a connection that was not there in the first term.
TERENCE SMITH: But there’s been talk, hasn’t there, Alexis, of Condoleezza Rice possibly going to the Pentagon, rather than the State Department?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: You know, there was discussion about that because Dr. Rice has a history of knowing a lot about, for instance, the Russian military, the Soviet military, and there was some thinking that the State Department or at least her friends told me at one time was not really her first coveted position in the cabinet because it’s kind of a culture management job that she gave Secretary Powell a lot of credit for, but maybe not something she herself relished doing.
And in fact the interesting thing is, I think, if the president is going to be sending her to State, then in fact she has acceded to something maybe she thought initially she didn’t want to do and she wants to stay in Washington because there was some talk that she definitely wanted to leave the National Security Council but wasn’t so sure that maybe she didn’t want to go all the way back to California or go back into the private sector in some way or academia.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a hidden message in that, David, as to the future for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld?
DAVID SANGER: Well, it could be, because Secretary Rumsfeld and Dr. Rice have certainly had their clashes in the past year or two, particularly over Abu Ghraib and the prison abuses. But also at that moment when Dr. Rice absorbed into the National Security Council the plan to run postwar Iraq, which initially you’ll recall had been a Defense Department task, and they made no secret of the fact that they didn’t see eye to eye on this.
It would be interesting to see what happens if she is sitting over at the State Department, because the whole subtext of everything that’s happened in this administration in foreign policy for the past three or four years has been this daily struggle between the Defense Department and the State Department and whether that changes with Dr. Rice, particularly given her connection to the president and her experience in dealing with Secretary Rumsfeld.
The guesswork is that Secretary Rumsfeld will probably stay around for a while but not for the entire term by a long shot.
TERENCE SMITH: And that might explain why the open position, secretary of state, might be attractive.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. And, you know, there was discussion in the White House that the president would be reluctant to let Dr. Rice leave too far.
And I think one of the interesting things to think about is abroad how if she is the pick, how she is viewed, because the one thing she would have going for her that Secretary Powell didn’t have, as David pointed out, is that direct line to the president. There would be no equivocation or confusion about whether she spoke for the president of the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: If that is the case — and we have to stress that this is still speculative — it would be something of a repeat of the model of Henry Kissinger who was first the national security adviser and later secretary of state.
DAVID SANGER: Yeah. He of course for a while held both portfolios and that didn’t work out quite that well.
But one of the interesting issues here is what happens to the National Security Council at that moment that its former director becomes the secretary. Does it diminish in power or not? The assumption is that it would be run by Dr. Rice’s deputy Steve Hadley who is enormously capable man, but obviously has alliances with her and also with Vice President Cheney.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s the impact of all this on the White House? Because these changes are coming quickly, of course we haven’t mentioned John Ashcroft, and Don Evans, two others who have announced their resignations even earlier, and there must be some turmoil there.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: You know, I think the story line is more about continuity, because these are as Chief of Staff Andy Card talks about them as old shoes. Some of these people we’re talking about are familiar faces to the president.
In fact, if this model of staff members moving out to the rewards and the cabinet holds up, Alberto Gonzales of course is the nominee to go to Justice, the talk is for education, for instance, the president’s education adviser Margaret Spelling could be his pick to move to succeed Rod Paige.
The story line there is that we’re not seeing a huge transition in thinking or the drive towards policy, but a loyalty to the president’s agenda and a commitment to fulfill it in whatever time he has before he becomes that lame duck.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you see it as continuity as well?
DAVID SANGER: I do, but I also think that this is a White House that as Alexis said earlier had delayed some changes probably longer than they wanted.
It’s also a White House that four years ago we were told was going to be spreading power out to the cabinet secretaries. And in fact it didn’t work out that way. You know, for all that we heard about the MBA presidency and all that, in the end, this was the most run from headquarters centralized operation that we’ve seen in a long, long time.
When you move people who are close to the president and have their own set opinions out into these departments, it will be interesting to see if that changes.
TERENCE SMITH: Now the other two that we haven’t mentioned, Ann Veneman and Spencer Abraham both stepping down. What the read on that, and possible successors?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: You know, our read at National Journal was that these were expected and in part because of their performance over four years.
There was some sense maybe not so much from within the White House but certainly within the affected communities that these departments have to deal with, the lobbyists, the special interest groups, they were sending word back that they would like a change in both of these situations. There are a number of names for agriculture, I know National Journal has a terrific Ag reporter, Jerry Hagstrom, and he was telling me today that the odds on favorite name is somebody we’ve never heard of but Charles Kruse who happens to be the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. And he’s often called as Jerry reminded me, Karl Rove’s favorite farmer, and in fact Andy Card has supposedly talked to him and the FBI is looking at him. But there are other names, Charlie Stenholm, who was just defeated for his office -
TERENCE SMITH: A Democrat.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: — a Democrat — if the president wants to put a Democrat back and just one quick name that’s emerged for energy might be Tom Kuhn who happens to be the president of the Edison Electric Institute, but why would his name come up? Because he’s a Yale buddy of George Bush’s and he raised a lot of money for him.
TERENCE SMITH: And very finally, very quickly, Rod Paige, his departure, he was controversial at times.
DAVID SANGER: He was, he is the man who at one point referred to the NEA as a terror organization, he apologized for it quickly. His legacy was the No Child Left Behind law, which was very innovative. The down side of his legacy is many who struck the deal say that the administration never came through with the funding. And so I think that his legacy may be a while before we know how it worked out.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, David Sanger, Alexis Simendinger, thank you both very much.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Thanks, Terry.
DAVID SANGER: Thank you.