Two grown-ups stand out among the president's appointees

November 07, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- From the accounts of friends, associates and assorted admirers of Samuel A. Alito Jr., some of the Supreme Court nominee's personal attributes stand out. It's universally agreed that he's modest, careful, thoroughly professional and firmly committed to a clear set of principles. Which raises the question: How often do you hear those qualities associated with anyone connected to the Bush administration?

Just 10 days ago, someone with similar traits was announcing the indictment of the vice president's chief of staff for an alleged cover-up that was almost comically inept. Patrick J. Fitzgerald, demonized as a rabid inquisitor trampling the Constitution to make a name for himself, turned out to be a model of painstaking precision and restraint, motivated only by the belief that even the powerful should obey the law.

Both Judge Alito and Mr. Fitzgerald are Bush appointees, and excellent ones.

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. worked for Dick Cheney, who was once taken as proof of Mr. Bush's seriousness. When the inexperienced governor of Texas chose the levelheaded Washington veteran as his running mate, most experts thought it showed Mr. Bush's willingness to rely on competent people with a sober grasp of the world's realities. Once in office, though, Mr. Cheney helped lead the president into a disastrous war in Iraq.

The vice president should have known better. As defense secretary under George H. W. Bush, he directed the first Persian Gulf war, which went much better than the second one.

In 1992, asked why the United States was content to evict Iraq from Kuwait while leaving Saddam Hussein in power, Mr. Cheney replied: "Once we had rounded him up and gotten rid of his government, then the question is what do you put in its place. You know, you then have accepted the responsibility for governing Iraq." He asked, "How many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is, not very damn many."

That was the Mr. Cheney the nation thought it was getting five years ago. But we might all identify with Brent Scowcroft, the elder Mr. Bush's national security adviser, who said recently, "Dick Cheney I don't know anymore." It's the new Mr. Cheney who apparently thought it was a fine idea to unmask a CIA operative for political reasons, heedless of the damage to national security.

He's just one of many administration officials who have distinguished themselves by hubris, recklessness or simple incompetence. There was former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who said critics concerned about civil liberties "only aid terrorists." There was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who scoffed at warnings that a larger force might be needed to occupy Iraq. There was Michael Brown, whose inexperience in disaster relief didn't keep him from heading the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But the problem starts at the top. Mr. Bush, who criticized President Bill Clinton for overextending the military and intervening too much abroad, did an about-face on foreign policy after 9/11. After deriding Democrat Al Gore as a spendthrift who trusted government more than he trusted the people, Mr. Bush embarked on a massive expansion of the federal budget. The George W. Bush who in 2000 said the United States should be a "humble nation" affected a pugnacious swagger that alienated even our allies.

Modest? Careful? Intellectually honest? Not this president or his subordinates.

Politics and law are separate spheres, which attract different sorts of people and reward different personal traits. But the qualities on display in Judge Alito and Mr. Fitzgerald happen to be admirable and valuable in any field. To see how well their virtues have served the country is to wonder how much more successful this administration might have been with grown-ups in charge.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail address is schapman@tribune.com.

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