Political Hacks in The White House

The fading furor over former FEMA chief Michael Brown and the fresh consternation over President Bush’s Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers have reignited an age-old American debate over cronyism in the White House.

Brown and Miers join a long and colorful line of political hacks, presidential pals and White House hangers-on extending far back in U.S. history _ to the constitutional framers who tried to guard against future presidents giving friends or relatives cushy jobs by requiring Senate confirmation of “principle officers” of the government.

“Administration jobs are a way of rewarding campaign workers and, in more recent years, people who raise a lot of money,” said David Lewis, a political-science professor at Princeton University and expert on bureaucracies. “All presidents appoint cronies. The difference is that not all of them are publicly exposed the way Michael Brown was.”

Brown, whose previous expertise had been in promoting Arabian horses, made a hasty exit from his perch atop the Federal Emergency Management Agency last month in the wake of a national outcry over the government’s sluggish response to a storm of biblical fury.

“As Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated, serious consequences result when unqualified cronies are appointed to federal public-safety positions,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said last week as she and Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, introduced a bill to set experience standards for dozens of government posts.

Brown had received his post because he was a college buddy of Joe Allbaugh, the previous FEMA director who was Bush’s gubernatorial chief of staff in Texas. Now, Bush faces new charges of insider favoritism in his bid to elevate Miers, his longtime lawyer and confidant, to the highest court in the land.

When reporters asked whether the Miers nomination was an example of cronyism, White House press secretary Scott McClellan replied:

“Well, the president knows her well. He has known her for some time now. But the decision was based on who was the best person to fill this vacancy. And she has the qualifications and experience needed to do an outstanding job on the United States Supreme Court, and that’s why the president selected her.”

But for some presidential historians, Bush’s nomination of Miers recalls President Franklin Roosevelt’s failed effort to expand the Supreme Court and pack it with political allies, or President Lyndon Johnson’s vain attempt to name his friend and longtime lawyer, Abe Fortas, the high court’s chief justice.

“Given her lack of (judicial) experience, does anyone doubt that Ms. Miers’ only qualification to be a Supreme Court justice is her close connection to the president?” Boston University law professor Randy Barnett wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

In an interview, Barnett said that presidents’ efforts to place friends on the Supreme Court are more worrisome than their bids to reward pals or campaign donors with other government posts.

“It seems perfectly reasonable for the president to want members of the executive branch to be loyal to him and to follow his directions rather than those of the bureaucracies they lead,” Barnett said. “They will leave their positions when the president leaves. Making a lifetime appointment of a friend to the Supreme Court is a whole different matter.”

Many presidents have been accused of putting friendships or family ties ahead of national interests.

In “A Thousand Days,” Arthur M. Schlesinger described President John Kennedy’s decision to make his brother, Bobby Kennedy, attorney general:

“Though nearly all the advice to both brothers was against the idea, he called Bobby over for breakfast one morning and told him that he would have to take the job,” Schlesinger wrote. “When (former Washington Post editor) Ben Bradlee later asked Kennedy how he proposed to announce his brother’s appointment, he said, ‘Well, I think I’ll open the front door of the Georgetown house some morning about 2:00 a.m., look up and down the street, and, if there’s no one there, I’ll whisper, “It’s Bobby.’ ”

Evan Thomas’ biography, “Bobby Kennedy,” has an account of a Jan. 20, 1961, dinner exchange on the topic soon after John Kennedy had been inaugurated.

“I don’t know why people are so mad at me for making Bobby attorney general,” JFK quipped. “I just wanted to give him a little legal practice before he becomes a lawyer.”

President Harry Truman was so well-known for handing out jobs to his Missouri friends that his Republican foe in the 1952 election campaign ran on the slogan of “Korea, corruption and communism.”

Truman named one World War I buddy, Harry Vaughan, his military attache and made him a general. The two joined other Truman pals in poker games where they smoked cigars and drank whiskey.

While he has plenty of historical company in looking out for his friends, according to some analysts, Bush has taken cronyism to a new level.

In order to do a statistical comparison of the Bush and Clinton administrations, Lewis, the Princeton political scientist, used a thick volume that is highly prized on Capitol Hill. Known widely as “the Plum Book,” it is a government publication of senior posts with the formal title, “United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions.”

In 2004, the fourth year of Bush’s presidency, there were 3,202 political appointees to jobs outside civil-service laws or restraints, according to Lewis. That was a 12.7 percent increase from the 2,845 such jobs in 2000 during the eighth and final year of Clinton’s administration.

Before 1883, when Congress created the civil-service system, all government jobs were patronage posts. Congress finally acted in response to rising public indignation over widespread corruption under President Ulysses S. Grant and untrained government workers who couldn’t handle the demands of a rapidly industrializing post-Civil War economy.

The final straw was the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield. His killer, Charles Guiteau, was incensed because Garfield had turned down his request to be U.S. ambassador to France.

Today, more than a century later, cronyism is alive and well in Washington thanks to presidents, and to lawmakers who regularly forward lists of favored job candidates to the White House.

“Whether it’s the courts or regional offices of executive agencies, members of Congress want some control over how things are done in their states or districts,” Lewis said. “As long as they have some influence over the picks, they like the patronage system.”