All presidential administrations have problems keeping their team members in line. Sometimes it takes time for people to gel in their positions. Sometimes cabinet secretaries, who rarely are shrinking violets, speak out on issues they care about, even if their passions don’t match presidential policy.
In a single week, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill suggested (in an unprintable phrase) that the administration’s 10-year budget surplus projections were unlikely to materialize. That undermined Bush’s case for his signature tax cut.
Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the administration would continue along Bill Clinton’s path of strengthening relations with North Korea, which flew in the face of Bush’s “axis of evil” policy. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said he was troubled by congressional prohibitions on fetal stem-cell research, even though Bush at the time approved of the law. Senior adviser John J. DiIulio, Jr. had tough words for religious conservatives, who had been strong Bush supporters in the campaign.
Such internal flare-ups, of course, occur in all administrations. In fact, such brush fires have sometimes erupted into something akin to nuclear warfare. For example, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George P. Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger had brawls that constantly tested the administration’s policy—and regularly spilled over into the newspapers. CIA Director William Casey tried to get Shultz fired. In the first Bush administration, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft found himself, together with then–Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, pressing for a tough line when Saddam Hussein challenged an American oil embargo. Secretary of State James A. Baker III argued for a softer, wait-and-see policy. Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, found himself isolated in his campaign to tighten human rights policy on China.
Bush believes in hiring the best people he can find, even if they are smarter than he is. But hiring strong—and strong-willed—experts into the administration is a prescription for conflict. Even though Team Bush faced some of the toughest challenges of any administration since World War II, the public disputes proved short-lived, especially in comparison with the public brawls of earlier presidencies. Senior team members, like Chief of Staff Andrew Card, quietly reined in some aides who wandered too far off message. Sometimes the axe fell quickly and brutally, as in late 2002, when Vice President Cheney was sent to tell Treasury Secretary O’Neill that the president wanted his resignation.
The administration’s reaction to aides who openly oppose a Bush position or wander off message is not really the point. The key lesson lies in the preemptory steps Bush takes to prevent this from happening in the first place. Discipline was first asserted by building the team, encouraging loyalty, and reinforcing that trait through close interactions. Bush’s approach had a soft side, grounded in the easy fraternity-leader style he developed at Yale. But it also has a tough side, forged in gritty political battles, especially in his father’s White House. George H.W. Bush asked Lee Atwater, a tough and acerbic political spinmeister, to run his 1988 presidential campaign. Atwater had worked for potential rivals, and George W. Bush wasn’t sure that he could be trusted with his father’s future.
Bush asked him, “How can we trust you?”
Atwater replied, “Are you serious?”
Bush answered him bluntly:
I’m damn serious, pal. In our family, if you go to war, we want you completely on our side. We love George Bush, and by God, you’d better bust your ass for him.
Atwater told Bush he had nothing to worry about, but that if he was still concerned, why not join the campaign and keep an eye on him? Bush decided to do just that, and became, in his own words, a “loyalty thermometer.” Aides learned that when his temperature rose, they needed to be careful. According to Chase Untermeyer, an old Bush family friend and personnel director in Bush 41’s White House, “Political professionals look upon candidates as the baggage they have to carry on their way to being famous. George W. was there to remind the various prima donnas that their main job was not to make themselves look like geniuses. It was to get George Bush elected.”
When he became president, Bush 43 ran his White House the same way. Through a combination of charm and sharp edges, of team building and tough discipline, he never allowed aides to wander far from the line he required.