Friday Goodbyes

Two exits and a check-in.

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It was a day for goodbyes in Washington. Press Secretary Scott McClellan held his last briefing. Reporters applauded him and held a party in the windowless offices of their basement hovel. “We’re losing our piñata,” said one correspondent, “and we never got any candy.” Fittingly, McClellan’s valedictory briefing didn’t contain the most extraordinary piece of news candy of the day, namely that CIA Director Porter Goss was resigning after less than two years on the job.

Perhaps the veil of secrecy around Goss’ departure was fitting for the exit of the country’s chief spymaster. Immediately before announcing his move to the press, Goss met with a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations. He talked about long-term planning for the agency and then walked out and went over to the White House for the announcement. According to an account of the meeting, those who met with him had no idea he was about to resign. Perhaps Goss could have gone one better and left his resignation on a tape that self destructs after five seconds. Instead, he sat in the Oval Office with the president in the stock manner usually reserved for the exchange of platitudes between the president and a foreign dignitary.

But if it wasn’t theatrical, the departure was still mysterious. It was held in the late Friday afternoon slot reserved for unpleasant news—known in the trade as “taking out the trash”—and the two men had the perfunctory air of a two Little Leaguers shaking hands after a game. Goss didn’t say why he was leaving and his successor wasn’t named. The president didn’t say he was sorry to see him go. When Goss’ predecessor, George Tenet, departed, Bush made it clear it was hard to accept his goodbye. Flying to Rome on Air Force One the same day, Condi Rice came back to the press cabin to say of Tenet’s resignation, “It’s really a great loss.” No one seems to feel that way about Goss.

At least he didn’t say he was leaving to spend more time with his family, one of the stock euphemisms used to help a Washington actor off the stage. But there was still the big question that always hangs over these stage-managed departures: Was Goss fired, or did he go on his own? Or, was it as it seems: He went on his own, but with the president’s hand pushing gently at the base of his back? An administration aide explained on background that Goss had upset too many people at the agency with his reform efforts and felt neutered by John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence who had been systematically draining his power. One senior official told the AP Bush and Negroponte had been discussing removing Goss for weeks. As if to codify that power shift and his ax-wielding role, Negroponte sat in the Oval Office for Goss’ departure remarks, but outside the camera frame.

Goss’ departure still wasn’t the weirdest one of the day. No sooner were he and the president done with their business than Patrick Kennedy announced that he was checking himself into rehab to break his addiction to prescription drugs. The announcement came shortly after the younger Kennedy was charged with “failure to give full time and attention” and “failure to keep in proper lane” after he crashed his car Thursday morning into a security barrier near the U.S. Capitol. He had told the officers that he was “late for a vote,” though it was after 2:30 a.m. and Congress was not in session. At the press conference announcing his treatment decision, Kennedy said he will continue to run for re-election. “I need to stay in the fight,” he said. Voters who have been kind to Kennedy family transgressions in the past will determine whether his treatment will be a temporary hiatus or mark the beginning of another Washington goodbye.