All the President’s Flunkies

Why Bush stands by his incompetents.

Click here to read more of Slate’s coverage of Alberto Gonzales.

Alberto Gonzales

Like the pope, the president doesn’t admit error. This was an early governing principle in the Bush White House. Policies could “evolve.” Talking points could be replaced by new ones that contradicted the earlier ones. The president could even resist a centralized approach to homeland security and then announce the creation of the second-largest department in the history of the federal government devoted to that purpose. But a president could never admit a blunder, because it irrevocably diminished his authority. This led to a famously awkward press conference in April 2004 where President Bush was unable to come up with a mistake he had committed and explain what he had learned from it. Since then, he has tried to improve on that answer but has admitted aloud only that he wishes he hadn’t used certain phrases, like “Bring ‘em on” when referring to insurgent attacks in Iraq.

Nowhere has this approach sapped Bush’s credibility more than with his personnel goofs. As Alberto Gonzales resigns today, he joins Donald Rumsfeld, Harriet Miers, and Michael Brown—animated failures who could not be controlled or improved with good public relations. The pattern has been consistent: The president resists and resists calls for a change. Then he gives in. In Gonzales’ case, it’s almost as if Bush were perfecting this failed approach, wringing out of his embattled old friend so many embarrassing gaffes that he couldn’t be hurt anymore. Then he let him go.

The more radioactive his aides become, the more Bush embraces them. With Gonzales, the president was particularly alone in this stance. Conservatives who might otherwise defend Bush against Democrats were appalled by Gonzales’ incompetence and the utter waste of time and energy devoted to cleaning up his messy department. Why does Bush hang on until his mistakes are glowing? In Gonzales’ case, there is their long-standing personal relationship. Bush brought him up from Texas and admires his up-by-the-bootstraps story. “I think of my friend Al Gonzales, recently sworn in as a Supreme Court justice,” Bush said in his second inaugural address as governor, back in 1999. “His parents reared eight children in a two-bedroom house in Houston. They sacrificed so that their children would have a chance to succeed. Al Gonzales has realized their dream.”

As a broader management practice, though, Bush has made a fetish of loyalty even when unaccompanied by ability. He saw how disloyal aides undercut his father. To win loyalty, Bush shows it. He also delights in riling his opponents and the Washington elites. If the “hand-wringers” and “second-guessers” wanted Gonzales out, that was even more reason to dig in his heels. Bush once said in an interview that he liked to lean forward a little during his State of the Union speeches when he knew what he was about to say would rile Democrats.

Bush also feels the essence of virtue is resisting any public outcry. He does this for public as well as internal purposes. “A president has got to be the calcium in the backbone,” Bush told author Bob Woodward. “If I weaken, the whole team weakens. If I’m doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt.” Most famously Bush did this with FEMA Administrator Michael Brown, declaring that he’d done a “heck of a job” during the early days after Katrina. More glaring, though, was his consistent defense of Gonzales. In April,  only moments after Gonzales gave a spectacularly inept and dishonest performance before the Senate judiciary committee, Bush said his confidence in Gonzales had increased.

The personnel failures make it very hard for Bush fans to defend the president because they so deeply undermine the tenets of his management style as he articulates it. Bush has often talked in almost mystical terms about his ability to take the measure of people by looking them in the eye. His most infamous snap judgment, early in his first term, was peeking into the soul of Vladimir Putin and finding goodness. But even with years of presidential experience, he continues to make terrible judgments about the aptitudes of his own staffers. Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales may be very nice people, but they were never competent for the jobs Bush wanted them to have.

In talking about the skills necessary for any president, Bush has almost always focused on personnel first. “If I were interviewing a guy for the job of president,” he said when I interviewed him for Time in August 2004, “I’d ask, How do you make decisions? How would you get unfiltered information? Would you surround yourself with hacks? Are you scared of smart people? I’ve seen the effect of the Oval Office on people. People are prepared to come in and speak their minds, and then they get in there, and the place overwhelms them, and they say, ‘Gee, Mr. President, you’re looking good.’ I need people who can walk in and say, ‘Hey, you’re not looking so great today.’ “

This kind of talk thrilled Bush supporters, but the president has never exercised the kind of emotion-free decision-making he bragged about. When it came to personnel decisions, his personal sense of loyalty, his hostility to the Beltway establishment, and his stubbornness all clouded his judgment. Tolerating incompetence has harmed Bush in any number of ways. The worst of these is locking in the idea that he’s oblivious to reality.