Condoleezza Rice’s elevation from national security adviser to secretary of state creates two dangerous voids. As has been widely noted, the appointment replaces Colin Powell, a dissenter of considerable stature, with Condi Rice, a compulsive parent-pleaser who appears physically incapable of uttering the words, “You’re wrong” to her commander in chief. As the New York Times put it in a Nov. 17 editorial, “as national security adviser, [Rice] seemed to tell him what he wanted to hear about decisions he’d already made, rather than what he needed to know to make sound judgments in the first place.”
But Rice’s promotion creates a second void, too, one specifically linked to a particular role Rice assumed inside the White House. As Mike Allen put it in the Nov. 17 Washington Post,
Aides said Bush and Rice know each other so well they have conversations based on body language, with maybe four words exchanged.[…]Rice spends more time with Bush than any aide except perhaps Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., and she has developed a friendship with the president and first lady Laura Bush that frequently takes her to Camp David on weekends.[…]Rice, a Cleveland Browns fan, bonded with Bush through their love of sports. The president drew laughter when he said in the Roosevelt Room: “Condi’s true ambition is beyond my power to grant. She would really like to be the commissioner of the National Football League.”
With Rice departing the White House for Foggy Bottom, President Bush isn’t just losing a national security adviser. He’s losing his work wife.
The terms “work wife,” “work husband,” and “work marriage” entered the national lexicon in 1987, when the writer David Owen wrote a groundbreaking Atlantic essay describing a particular Platonic intimacy that frequently arises between male and female employees working in close proximity:
[L]et’s say that you, like me, are a man. In that case your work wife would be the woman in your office who
(a) as you walk past her desk on your way to a big meeting, tells you that you have dried shaving cream behind your ear
(b) has lunch with you pretty often
(c) returns stuff that she borrows from your desk
(d) tells you things about her other (home) husband that he wouldn’t want you to know
(e) waits for you to finish up so that you can go down in the elevator together
(f) complains to you without embarrassment about an uncomfortable undergarment
(g) expects you to tell her the truth, more or less, about the thing she has done to her hair
(h) thinks you eat, drink, and smoke an acceptable right amount
(i) knows at least one thing about you—such as the fact that you can do a pretty good imitation of Liza Minnelli—that your home wife doesn’t know.
In some ways, Owen wrote, work marriage is an improvement on the real thing:
For example, your work wife would never ask you why you don’t just put your dishes right into the dishwasher instead of leaving them in the sink—she doesn’t know you do it! Also, she would never wedge your car between two others in the parking lot at Bradlees, sign you up to be the pie auctioneer at a church bazaar, or grab hold of your stomach and ask, “What’s this? Blubber?” She knows you only as you appear between nine and five: recently bathed, fully dressed, largely awake, and in control of your life.
If you’ve never had a work marriage yourself, you’ve doubtless observed many. Owen told me he was inspired by the work marriage between former Esquire editors Lee Eisenberg and Betsy Carter, but to my mind, the archetypal work marriage is the one between Mary Richards and Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (To underscore the chasteness of the relationship, actor Gavin MacLeod played Murray a little bit gay.) Writing last year in the Wall Street Journal (“How Workplace Couples Keep Each Other Happy“), Jared Sandberg sketched out a few explanations for why such relationships flourish:
Organizational psychologist Dory Hollander says in many ways it’s no different from same-sex workplace friends, except in one respect: “We’re sort of wired in our male-female relationships to take on supportive roles, as opposed to same-sex relationships which tend to be more dominative or competitive,” she says.Two decades ago, Ms. Hollander began to notice a “mood regulating” dynamic between opposite-sex workplace friendships that could keep the partners from flying off the handle. “It wasn’t an affair. It was like a second marriage. It was an intimacy and caring for each other,” she says.Nine-to-five nuptials spring from the huge amount of waking hours employees spend with their colleagues. The central role work plays in our lives means we often have more things in common with colleagues than with spouses: The little office hells that bond us. The latest office back-stabbings, which take our work spouse’s breath away, bore our real spouses senseless.
Presidents don’t typically have work wives, partly because the White House is mostly a male preserve, and partly because presidents tend to prefer mistresses. (Nearly half of all presidents since FDR are known to have cheated on their wives either before or during their presidencies.) But since he entered the Oval Office, George W. Bush has never been without one. Why would Bush want a work wife? For the same reasons as anybody else, says Owen, only perhaps writ larger: “Your work wife wouldn’t say, ‘Why don’t you do something about the environment?’ like your regular wife might do.”
Dubya’s first work wife was Karen Hughes. When she left for Texas in 2002, Rice was poised to replace her. “It may be her finest moment as a strategic thinker.” observes Ron Suskind, author of a widely read Hughes profile in Esquire. Now that Condi’s going, who can fill her shoes?
Until today, White House Domestic Policy Adviser Margaret Spellings would have seemed the logical choice (especially since her job left her with a lot of time on her hands). Spellings was an ally going back to Texas days, and by all accounts she’s a cheery and supportive presence. But Bush scotched that possibility by appointing Spellings education secretary, a job that will finally draw on Spellings’ expertise (she took the lead on the No Child Left Behind bill) and, more to the point, will remove her to a government building on Capitol Hill.
Who does that leave? Kristen Silverberg, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. “She’s too young,” opines Washington Post Bush-watcher Dana Milbank. (Silverberg’s in her early 30s.)There’s Harriet Miers, newly appointed to replace White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (and formerly deputy chief of staff for policy). In Texas, Miers was Bush’s personal lawyer. Don’t advice columnists say you shouldn’t get personally involved with your lawyer?
Two White House reporters with whom I discussed this dilemma questioned my premise. One of them made a particularly eloquent (but necessarily anonymous) case:
There’s no reason Condi can’t remain his work wife. Going to the State Department doesn’t make her GU (geographically undesirable). Like many power couples, they’ll face the challenges of demanding careers that make scheduling quality time difficult. Sometimes, she’ll want to talk and he’ll want action (I’m talking about crises like Iran, of course). But that’s just the way it goes. The important thing to remember is that you need to communicate with each other to make it work.
But I think this misses the spirit of the thing. Because this relationship is built on a million everyday interactions, none of them of great consequence, a work husband and wife really need to be situated in the same workplace. Maybe it’s time for Bush to start thinking about choosing a man for his work spouse. I claim Slate “Press Box” columnist Jack Shafer for my work spouse (over his protest), and though the relationship is extremely dysfunctional, very little of that stems from the fact that we’re both heterosexual. Maybe President Bush’s next work spouse should be his chief of staff, Andy Card. I say they should give it a shot.
[Update, Nov. 22, 2004: In the Nov. 20 New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller all but names Harriet Miers, “who is unmarried,” as Bush’s new work wife:
[S]he is the kind of woman, like Karen P. Hughes and Condoleezza Rice, whom Mr. Bush likes on his staff: tough, direct and intensely loyal. … Ms. Miers is a regular guest at Camp David and is often the only woman who accompanies Mr. Bush and male staff members in long brush-cutting and cedar-clearing sessions at the president’s ranch.
Anybody else who wants the job had better move fast.]