Iâve already said that I believe President Bush gave the Democrats a big opening by telling the final questioner, in so many words, that he doesnât think heâs made any mistakes. But there was another part of this answer that is equally revealing. And it came in an aside, which is often a vehicle of spontaneous or unintentional honesty.
In the course of his answer President Bush said: âNow, you asked what mistakes. I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I’m not going to name them. I don’t want to hurt their feelings on national TV.â
I donât think anybody familiar with this president or this White House can have much doubt about the people he was talking about there.
Paul OâNeill seems almost certain to have been one of the people, probably the person, the president had in mind. Quite likely Richard Clarke, perhaps John DiIulio, and others in the same category. The president prizes loyalty over all else. And the folks whoâve gotten canned are in almost every case folks whoâve raised concerns about the presidentâs mistakes before he made them or before their consequences became fully evident.
Though the president didnât appoint Eric Shinseki as Army Chief of Staff, his accelerated retirement for questioning whether the president was putting enough troops on the ground in Iraq is the telling sign for how the Bush White House works.
In the presidentâs world, accountability and punishment arenât for the folks who make the mistakes. Theyâre for the people who recognize the mistakes or, God forbid, admit them. And when the president had a chance to come up with any mistakes he might have made in four years as president the one that instinctively popped into his mind were the times heâd appointed folks who turned out to be from the second category, rather than the first.
This is all of a piece. In the Bush world you never admit mistakes. The only mistakes the president can think of are the times he appointed people who do admitted mistakes — who put reality above loyalty to the president.
No one likes admitting mistakes. And itâs often especially difficult for public officials to do so. But recognizing mistakes — on the inside, if not for public consumption — is how you prevent mistakes from metastasizing into disasters. Which all explains a great deal about how we got where we are now in Iraq.