Who’s In Charge Here?

By Zachary Roth

In Sunday’s New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller sets out to make the case that, despite what some students of the administration think, President Bush really is in charge at the White House.

Here’s Bumiller’s evidence:

- Michael Deaver, President Reagan’s deputy chief of staff and image consultant, says so. “For people who know, Bush is clearly in charge,” he tells Bumiller.

- So does White House communications director Dan Bartlett. Sort of. “He’s happy to keep expectations low. He’s been underestimated in politics since he first ran for office.”

- Bush has sometimes “overruled” Cheney: For instance, he sought U.N. support for the Iraq war, over Cheney’s “strong objections.” And, he decided not to inoculate every American against smallpox, as Cheney advocated.

- Bush “did most of the talking” to the 9/11 Commission this week. He “answered tough questions without hesitation, and with little help from Mr. Cheney and Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel.”

- Bush told the 9/11 Commission that he was “aware of the more heated statements that were made about the administration in past public hearings.” He even “got off a couple of good shots,” according to John Lehman, one of the commission’s Republican members.

- According to administration officials, Bush has been “engaged” with the challenges in Iraq this week.

- Bob Woodward’s new book Plan of Attack portrays Bush as “decisive and engaged.”

- Cheney is said to refer to Bush as “the Man.”

So here’s what we have: quotes from three Republicans (one of whom is Bush’s communications director); two issues (one relatively minor) on which Bush over-ruled Cheney; the fact that Bush answered questions from the 9/11 Commission without prompting from Cheney or his lawyer, and showed he was aware of the highly-publicized testimony of previous witnesses; Bush’s aides telling reporters, predictably, that the president was “engaged” on Iraq, during one of the worst weeks yet since the invasion; and a pithy summary of a lengthy and complex book.

We remain unconvinced. The root of the problem here is that Bumiller sets up a straw man in describing the supposed charge that Bush is disconnected. As she sees it, “An angry left, still stinging over the 2000 election and now furious over the shifting reasons for war in Iraq, sees in Mr. Bush’s less-than-articulate news conferences a less-than-sharp mind. Therefore, Mr. Cheney must be running the country from under Mr. Bush’s Oval Office desk.”

She uses David Gergen, who served as Reagan’s press secretary (but also worked for Bill Clinton, giving him valuable “non-partisan” status in the eyes of the press) to reinforce that characterization. According to Gergen, “People on the left hear Bush discuss things in such simple ways, and yet carry off what seem to be diabolical plots so effortlessly, that they can’t believe it’s really him. It’s almost impossible for people on the left to believe that simple-speaking people can be successful at politics, or can successfully govern.”

That may describe the thinking of a few on the “angry left,” but it doesn’t come close to capturing the actual arguments of some serious observers who posit that Cheney has more control than the White House lets on. Bumiller is writing here for the “Week in Review,” the Times’ opinion and commentary section, so she has leeway to be selective in choosing her facts. But she’s not at liberty to inaccurately summarize an opposing argument, in order to dismiss it more easily. Rendering that argument fairly would have entailed including some of the following pieces of information, among others:

- Cheney’s influence in the appointment of leading members of the administration’s foreign policy team, including his Ford administration colleague Donald Rumsfeld.

- His public support for more than 10 years for removing Saddam Hussein from power.

- The reported role of the Vice President’s office in using intelligence to make the case for war.

- Cheney’s lead role in a White House’s task force which fashioned the administration’s energy policy.

- The White House’s well-documented tendency to assert executive privilege when challenged, which corresponds with Cheney’s stated desire to wrest back the presidential powers that he believes have been weakened over the last 30 years.

Let’s be clear. We have no idea how long a shadow Cheney’s influence casts. But we do think that, in order to shed light on the issue — Cheney as Rasputin vs. Cheney as loyal servant — reporters need to correctly characterize the arguments in play before making their own conclusions.

Some have accused Bumiller in the past of going easy on the White House, so as not to jeopardize future access. But there may be something subtler at work here:

If the president were a puppet, it would mean that the press has missed the real story for the past three years. That’s an uncomfortable thought for any reporter.

For the press to matter, the president has to be in charge.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.