Today's question: Is White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card as much of a fool as Esquire makes him appear? The New York Times reports that the White House is in a minor swivet over an article in the July Esquire by Ron Suskind about the pending departure of White House counselor Karen Hughes. One theme of the Esquire piece is that Hughes is the only person who knows how to dumb down policy choices sufficiently for President Bush to understand them. With Hughes gone, who will chew the president's food? Apparently this question has Card in a near-panic: "The whole balance of the place, the balance of what has worked up to now for George Bush, is gone, simply gone," Card tells Suskind. (Most of the quotes Chatterbox cites can be found in this excerpt posted on Esquire's Web site.) Card elaborates:
"My biggest concern? Want to know what it is? That the president will lose confidence in the White House staff. Because without her, we'll no longer be able to provide the president what he needs, what he demands. Karen and her family will be fine," he says. "It's the president I'm concerned about."
… He gets up and starts pacing the cobalt-blue wall-to-wall, kneading his hands. … "This, you know, will be seen as one of those crossroads, a moment of causation, and everything after this will be prefaced by 'After Karen Hughes left.'" Then he stops. He sees it clearly, and it's very personal. "She's leaving when the president has one of the highest approval ratings on record. From here, it can only go down. And when it does, you know who they're going to blame." He taps his chest. "They're gonna blame Andy Card!"
Hey Ab-bott! But wait, there's more:
"The key balance around here," he says, "has been between Karen and Karl Rove," the president's right hand and his left. Rove is much more the ideologue, a darling of the Right, who often swings a sharp sword of partisanship on matters of policy and politics. …
"That's what I've been doing from the start of this administration. Standing on the middle of the seesaw, with Karen on one side, Karl on the other, trying to keep it in balance. One of them just jumped off." He throws himself onto the couch to demonstrate, then he exhales again and talks about how he might restore balance. … "I'll need designees, people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl." And then he ticks off a few—like Tucker Eskew, Dan Bartlett, Mary Matalin, Ari Fleischer, speechwriter Michael Gerson. "They are going to have to really step up, but it won't be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary."
But our man Card is not without resources. Here's the chief of staff's solution for the unhappiness that Hughes' Washington sojourn has visited on her husband, Jerry, and her high-school-age son, Robert (a theme Suskind's piece evokes with striking sensitivity):
"We need a friend for Robert? We can get a friend for Robert!"
According to the Times, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett maintains that Suskind's piece "was not an accurate representation of this White House." But Bartlett did not, the Times says, dispute the accuracy of the Card quotes. A cynic would conclude that Card's inane babblings to Suskind demonstrate why the White House is wise to limit access to the press.
But Chatterbox has a different view. What Card's misadventure demonstrates is that the White House is out of practice at talking to the press. Because its usual stance is a straight stonewall, it has forgotten how to talk to reporters in an honest-but-guarded way. As a result, when it does talk to the press, it sounds like an idiot. Or at least Card does. (Hughes comes off very well in Suskind's article—indeed, one might argue, a little too well.) It may be in the White House's interest to reconsider its policy of omertà. If it doesn't, Chatterbox will be tempted to conclude that the problem lies deeper, to wit: that Card sounds like an idiot because he is an idiot.
[Update, June 7: The White House has stepped up its counteroffensive. In today's Washington Post, Ari Fleischer tells Lloyd Grove, "We're taking up a collection to buy the author a tape recorder." (Suskind took longhand notes.) Meanwhile, Card last night told MSNBC, "That story, first of all, they said that I have a blue rug in my office. I don't have a blue rug in my office. They claimed that I did things that I did not do. I view this story as more fiction than nonfiction. I live in a nonfiction world." Esquire does seem to have screwed up the color of the rug, which, according to Fleischer, is tan. ("I'm colorblind, and even I can tell it's tan.") Notably, though, neither Card nor Fleischer went so far as to claim that Card was misquoted.]
[Update, June 8: Suskind told CNN's Judy Woodruff yesterday that he's colorblind, too! Chatterbox assigns Suskind one demerit for allowing his piece to contain a novelistic detail ("cobalt-blue wall-to-wall") that he couldn't verify himself. Otherwise, though, the Esquire piece is holding up pretty well. Yesterday Margaret Warner asked Card point-blank on PBS's NewsHour, "Is this what you said?" Card answered: "If I were to go back and forth over every alleged quote in that article, it wouldn't be appropriate." Chatterbox's translation: "Yes, it's what I said." Card also gave this hilariously tongue-tied elaboration: "Karl is a very strong leader, who has served the president very well and will continue to serve the president well. Karen has a very strong personality, and she's served the president well. Karen's hole will be difficult to fill, and we can fill it because they're outstanding people, and Karen will continue to be involved in the success of this presidency."]