Who’s On First?

[Who's On First] Who’s really running things at the White House?

During the Cold War, the politics and rivalries within the Soviet Union could seem so bizarre and arcane that an entire field of “study” was developed to try and untangle it. Dubbed “Kremlinology,” this study was as much guesswork and psychology as intelligence gathering.

It is at once telling and disturbing that our own executive branch has become so secretive that some are comparing the job of discerning its motives to Kremlinology.

At once the most amusing and disturbing aspect of this is probably the question of who is really deciding policy. Obviously the official answer is George W. Bush; equally obvious is that he makes his decisions based almost entirely on the input of his staff. The President has admitted outright that he does not use external sources of information, but rather, he relies on a few trusted advisors to be “objective sources.”

The two front runners for the perceived position of power behind the throne are Vice-President Dick Cheney and chief strategist Karl Rove. These two men, more than any others, reflect both the unity and the division within the White House — the complete loyalty to the administration and discipline in staying “on message” on the one hand, and the bitter struggles to influence policy on the other.

Dick Cheney, by any standards a highly intelligent man, is almost certainly the most powerful Vice President of our time, and possibly the most influential one in American history. For all his power, influence, and name recognition, however, he’s not seen publicly any more than other recent vice presidents — and possibly less. In many ways, between his shadowy influence over energy policy and his questionable involvement in gathering intelligence for the Iraq war, he personifies the secrecy and autocratic tendencies of this administration.

For some, Cheney is the top suspect in the search for a puppet master. His education and experience make him vitally important to Bush in decision making, particularly in foreign policy. As we learn more about his relationship with the CIA, it becomes more apparent that his office was deeply involved with (if not directly responsible for) the decisions regarding intelligence analysis and usage. Many of the usual neocon suspects (Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, et. al.) were and are strongly connected to Cheney’s alternative choices in intelligence gathering. Surprisingly, the supposedly pragmatic Cheney was the most strident in defending the particulars regarding the war when the facts began to prove damning to many administration statements.

His approach to energy policy was interesting in other ways: he met with major business leaders in the industry and essentially overturned the FOIA to prevent the discussions from becoming public. It may explain the current energy bill, however, with a little help from Molly Ivins:

We would, of course, tell you who wrote this abomination, except Dick Cheney, who headed the task force, doesn’t think any of us should know where this law came from, and the Republicans who have been working on it in secret for months met in secret. Democrats were not even admitted to the committee meetings.

On the other hand, we have Karl Rove — not as well educated formally, but education is not a mark of genius, only information. And the term “genius” is used commonly to refer to Karl Rove. To his allies, including George Bush himself, he is the Boy Genius. To his enemies, he is the Evil Genius. (Curiously, DC Comics had Lex Luthor win the 2000 presidential election in their fictional universe; for some of Rove’s rivals, the differences are not that enormous.) Either way, however, he is The Genius, the guy who turns a man who left three limbs in Vietnam into a traitor, the operator who corners the political market on the September 11th attacks, who juggles tariffs and tax cuts and big government and faith-based policies without cracking the Republicans’ base. No mean trick, divided as it is between business-oriented conservatives who distrust regulations on principle and radical religious “conservatives” who want to make their morality the law of the land.

Did he write any laws? Of course not. Does he have tremendous influence on the process, the policy, and the perception of them, both before and after they go through Congress? You bet. That’s a lot of power for a man whose actual position is in Bush’s campaign rather than in his Cabinet.

And then there’s the man himself, George W. Bush, the puppet. Or is he? It’s a very strange thing to wonder just how much the power the President of the United States really has. And it must be noted that, though many on the left believe that the man’s a joke at best and a dangerous child at worst, this opinion is by no means universal. No less a White-Houseologist than David Corn believes that Bush is really running the show:

CORN: I do not think George W. Bush is a puppet. I think he is in charge, particularly so in foreign policy. After 9/11, I think he saw himself as being placed in the office providentially to lead the country at this point in time. He certainly is not a details man, but he does give guidance and leadership to the people working for him. To some degree he’s controlled, in the sense that he can only make decisions based on what information he gets. But he is indeed responsible for whom he listens to and what he chooses to listen to.

A rather frightening prospect for those who see Bush as a mediocre mind at best, true. Nevertheless, Corn’s (very educated) opinion is an example of the variety of theories surrounding the nature of power within the current White House. While it is important to know who and what we’re dealing with, however, the primary issue raised by this uncertainty is that we simply do not know something as basic as who wields the functional power of the president in this country. We don’t know what they’re doing, we don’t know how they’re doing it — we can’t even be entirely sure who they are. All we know is what comes out of the end.

Somehow, asking who’s on first doesn’t seem as funny any more. Fortunately, we’ll have a chance to answer that question for ourselves a year from now. Perhaps then, White-Houseology can join its predecessor in the bin of history.

(/) Roland X

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