With Dick Cheney in the hospital yet again complaining of discomfort in the chest area, Chatterbox couldn’t resist quizzing various Washington observers about who would run the Bush administration should Cheney suddenly be rendered unavailable. (This is a distinct question from who would be vice president since a new vice president wouldn’t necessarily assume Cheney’s degree of importance. Probably Bush would make Tom Ridge his new veep, and Ridge isn’t shadow president material.) The Washington observers refused to be quoted by name (wouldn’t you?), but Chatterbox has aggregated their wisdom and added a bit of his own.
It goes without saying that George W. Bush isn’t up to the job. Chief of staff Andy Card lacks sufficient stature. Colin Powell has the stature, but probably not the necessary interest in domestic affairs. Karl Rove and Karen Hughes have Bush’s trust, but insufficient experience at the national level. Trent Lott and Dennis Hastert probably don’t have Bush’s trust, and they certainly don’t have the brains. White House budget director Mitch Daniels has the brains, but probably lacks sufficient influence with Dubya. Jim Baker has done it before (he was Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff), but Dubya doesn’t like him, and even if he did, it would be way too embarrassing. The more you ponder it, the more all roads point to one man: Donald Rumsfeld.
Imagine you’re Dubya. You’re in a blind panic because you’ve lost the guy who winds the key in your back every morning. You want Cheney. But you can’t have Cheney. What’s the next best thing? The guy who invented Cheney! Who actually served as chief of staff to Gerald Ford before Cheney did! And who also knows a thing or two about domestic affairs, since he ran Richard Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity. You wouldn’t actually make him vice president, of course–he’s too old and too scary to assume so formal a role. Maybe you wouldn’t even need to bring him into the White House. In fact, it would probably be better if you didn’t. But you could quietly get him to hand over day-to-day Pentagon operations to an underling so he could make himself available more or less full-time as an adviser. You could have him chair meetings. Your cover story could be that you want to involve the Defense department in every decision because that’s how committed you are to repairing the national defense machinery that wound down under your predecessor. Alternatively, you could push Card out and make Rummy the new chief of staff. Or you could make Rumsfeld some sort of “deputy” to Card when in fact Rummy would be calling the tune.
To fully grasp the terrors of the Rumsfeld scenario, read Jason Vest’s excellent Rumsfeld profile (and this online sidebar) in the Feb. 26 American Prospect. Vest provides loving detail on how Rumsfeld disemboweled Henry Kissinger (too liberal!) and Nelson Rockefeller during the Ford administration. Interestingly, the one bureaucratic rival whose career Rumsfeld was unable to run off the tracks was George Bush Sr.
Photograph of Donald Rumsfeld by HO/Reuters.