Fallguyology: A User’s Guide

The role Alberto Gonzales was born to play.

In Washington, it’s raining fall guys. During President Bush’s first term, you couldn’t dislodge a political appointee to save your life. I learned this the hard way, predicting imminent demise for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld five years before his departure, for Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill one year before his departure, and for White House factotum Karl Rove, who never left. That was when Bush was riding high in the polls. With Bush’s approval rating now stuck in the 30-percent-to-40-percent range, he’s a little more attentive to criticism. The replacement of the sycophantic White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card with the smarter and tougher-minded Josh Bolton is likely another reason so many bodies are being thrown overboard.

Who are the fall guys? The most famous right now is Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby is shouldering full blame for Plamegate, even though Rove, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and possibly former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer were just as guilty of the underlying offense of outing a CIA employee. (While probably legal, their actions should have gotten Rove and Armitage fired; Fleischer was on his way out the door anyway.) Army Gen. George Weightman, who appears to have had little to do with creating the outpatient scandal at Walter Reed Army Hospital, nonetheless was the first to go when news of the scandal hit the Washington Post. He was followed by the seemingly more-culpable Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Army Surgeon General Kevin C. Kiley. Meanwhile, the bubbling scandal surrounding the ham-handed and politically motivated firings of eight U.S. attorneys led to the March 13 resignation of D. Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for allegedly failing to inform higher-ups about his contacts with the White House about the firings. That same day, the Bush administration released e-mails  identifying former White House Counsel Harriet Miers (who resigned two months earlier) as the person who first proposed wholesale firings of U.S. attorneys. This is Miers’ second tour as fall guy (fall person?), the first being her humiliating withdrawal as nominee to the Supreme Court in 2005 after Bush was criticized for promoting an unqualified crony. Bush “reluctantly” accepted Miers’ withdrawal. It’s widely expected that Bush, with equal reluctance, will accept Gonzales’ resignation.

The fall guy represents a particular social type in Washington, and Gonzales fits it to a T. The ideal fall guy is fervently loyal and not particularly bright. Loyalty is required because a good fall guy must accept blame or at least not assign it to higher-ups (in this instance, President Bush, who admits that he passed on complaints about U.S. attorneys from congressional Republicans but insists that he “never brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions”). Dimness is helpful because the more plausibly incompetent a fall guy is, the more willingly the press and the public will believe that the scandal is his fault. Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Michael “Heck of a Job” Brown, for instance, was so clearly in over his head during Hurricane Katrina that his departure took the heat off Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, who was found subsequently to bear much of the blame. (Brown wasn’t particularly loyal to Chertoff after his dismissal, but by then his public image was so buffoonish that it scarcely mattered.)

If a loyal and dim fall guy is unavailable, a loyal and conspicuously zealous fall guy is second-best. Hence Libby (whose chief task as fall guy is, and probable motive in lying to prosecutors was, to protect zealot-in-chief Cheney). Two Libby antecedents were President Richard Nixon’s domestic advisor John Ehrlichman and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, whose resignations Nixon accepted reluctantly (“two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know”) in April 1973. Nixon tended to confess to wrongdoing through pre-emptive denial (most famously: “I am not a crook”), and he demonstrated this tic when he announced these two resignations. “I will not place the blame on subordinates—on people whose zeal exceeded their judgment and who may have done wrong in a cause they deeply believed to be right,” Nixon declaimed. But that’s precisely what Nixon was doing, in hopes that he could put the Watergate scandal behind him. The strategy failed but not through lack of steadfastness by the shrewd and loyal Ehrlichman and Haldeman. It was White House Counsel John Dean, whom Nixon fired around the same time, who foiled the coverup. Dean was a spectacularly poor choice for fall guy because he came clean to investigators and demonstrated, in the process, a crisply precise memory of the Watergate coverup. Another unwisely designated fall guy was Donald Regan, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan when the Iran-contra scandal broke. Regan, a clever and vindictive man with no great love for his boss, was pushed out at the height of the scandal, even though he would never be implicated in it. Regan hit back by revealing, in a White House memoir published near the end of Reagan’s second term, that First Lady Nancy Reagan—who reportedly had ordered his firing—had required him to rearrange President Reagan’s schedule according to the dictates of an astrologer named Joan Quigley.

How well do you remember the fall guys of recent American history? In our next installment, a quiz.