Condoleezza Rice's promotion creates a void.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 17 2004 6:16 PM

Prexy Sks Wrk Wf

Condoleezza Rice's promotion creates a void.

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Presidents don't typically have work wives, partly because the White House is mostly a male preserve, and partly because presidents tend to prefer mistresses. (Nearly half of all presidents since FDR are known to have cheated on their wives either before or during their presidencies.) But since he entered the Oval Office, George W. Bush has never been without one. Why would Bush want a work wife? For the same reasons as anybody else, says Owen, only perhaps writ larger: "Your work wife wouldn't say, 'Why don't you do something about the environment?' like your regular wife might do."

Dubya's first work wife was Karen Hughes. When she left for Texas in 2002, Rice was poised to replace her. "It may be her finest moment as a strategic thinker." observes Ron Suskind, author of a widely read Hughes profile in Esquire. Now that Condi's going, who can fill her shoes?

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Until today, White House Domestic Policy Adviser Margaret Spellings would have seemed the logical choice (especially since her job left her with a lot of time on her hands). Spellings was an ally going back to Texas days, and by all accounts she's a cheery and supportive presence. But Bush scotched that possibility by appointing Spellings education secretary, a job that will finally draw on Spellings' expertise (she took the lead on the No Child Left Behind bill) and, more to the point, will remove her to a government building on Capitol Hill.

Who does that leave? Kristen Silverberg, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. "She's too young," opines Washington Post Bush-watcher Dana Milbank. (Silverberg's in her early 30s.)There's Harriet Miers, newly appointed to replace White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (and formerly deputy chief of staff for policy). In Texas, Miers was Bush's personal lawyer. Don't advice columnists say you shouldn't get personally involved with your lawyer?

Two White House reporters with whom I discussed this dilemma questioned my premise. One of them made a particularly eloquent (but necessarily anonymous) case:

There's no reason Condi can't remain his work wife. Going to the State Department doesn't make her GU (geographically undesirable). Like many power couples, they'll face the challenges of demanding careers that make scheduling quality time difficult. Sometimes, she'll want to talk and he'll want action (I'm talking about crises like Iran, of course). But that's just the way it goes. The important thing to remember is that you need to communicate with each other to make it work.

But I think this misses the spirit of the thing. Because this relationship is built on a million everyday interactions, none of them of great consequence, a work husband and wife really need to be situated in the same workplace. Maybe it's time for Bush to start thinking about choosing a man for his work spouse. I claim Slate "Press Box" columnist Jack Shafer for my work spouse (over his protest), and though the relationship is extremely dysfunctional, very little of that stems from the fact that we're both heterosexual. Maybe President Bush's next work spouse should be his chief of staff, Andy Card. I say they should give it a shot.

[Update, Nov. 22, 2004: In the Nov. 20 New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller all but names  Harriet Miers, "who is unmarried," as Bush's new work wife:

[S]he is the kind of woman, like Karen P. Hughes and Condoleezza Rice, whom Mr. Bush likes on his staff: tough, direct and intensely loyal. ... Ms. Miers is a regular guest at Camp David and is often the only woman who accompanies Mr. Bush and male staff members in long brush-cutting and cedar-clearing sessions at the president's ranch.

Anybody else who wants the job had better move fast.]

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.