Bush League

In his State of the Union address last week, George W. Bush asked every American to donate at least 4,000 hours “to the service of your neighbors and your nation.” The president called this initiative the USA Freedom Corps. Here in Washington, I’m proud to say, we’ve had a similar tradition for many years. It’s called presidential campaigns.

Every four years, thousands of lawyers, lobbyists, Hill staff, and other politically involved Washingtonians drop what they’re doing and go to work for a cause greater than themselves. Like Mormon missionaries, they carry their sacred commitment to remote and alien lands: Ypsilanti, Toledo, Saginaw, and sometimes even deeper into the isolated reaches of the battleground states. They are driven by love of country, and of party. Plus, they want jobs. If their candidate wins, they know they’re likely to wind up with employment in the executive branch. “Do people take time off from their jobs and families, work for pesos, eat crappy food, gain a lot of weight, spend all that time on the road, so in the end they don’t get an administration appointment?” asks a former volunteer on Bush 2000. “I don’t think so.”

For decades, that has been the bargain presidential candidates strike with the capital’s political Establishment: Give me what I need, and I’ll respect you in the morning. Now that it’s morning, though, the Bush administration has gone cold. Permanent Washington feels used.

When you think of political patronage, you picture heavyset politicos doling out the spoils from a hideaway in the Capitol, or over steak in the back room of some expensive restaurant. That was the old way. If you want an appointment in this administration, you have to start on the Internet. The White House requires job seekers – from an aspiring undersecretary of Labor to those hoping to join the Postal Rate Commission or the Copyright Royalty Tribunal – to apply first online, at www.whitehouse.gov. They’re not kidding.

Let’s say you tried to get an appointment the old way, by persuading members of Congress and various other officials to write letters touting you for the job. If you hadn’t signed on to the White House Website first, this approach wouldn’t work. Your supporters would likely receive a curt form letter from the presidential personnel office (the one I saw contained a grammatical error) informing them that “your candidate has not yet filled out the on-line application.”

You would find this wildly insulting (why didn’t the White House send the letter to you?), though perhaps not as insulting as the online application itself, which begins with a patronizing little lecture about the rigors of serving in the Bush-Cheney administration. “The hours are long and the pace intense,” it warns. “There is much public/press scrutiny, as you would expect in an open, democratic form of government such as ours.” And so on. As if you didn’t know.

The application questions are for the most part perfunctory (name, address, college degrees), but the site is infuriatingly slow. The process takes forever. Those who choose it, the form explains, “have the option to copy and paste your resume from Word or Word Perfect or you may type it into the blank field provided.” The most revealing section, however, comes at the beginning, when applicants are invited to list their desired prefix: “Dr., Senator, Judge, Mayor, etc… .”Message: Even judges and senators and mayors are going to have to spend an afternoon flailing around on the Internet if they want a job in the Bush administration. It’s egalitarianism, yuppie-style, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched candidate Bush triangulate against the Republican Congress, and in general run against Washington.

What’s unexpected is the tone the administration sometimes adopts with fellow Republicans in Washington: superior, remote, even – and, coming from the temple of politeness, this is stunning – rude. “These Texans show up,” says one Republican lobbyist, “and their attitude is ‘We’re here, but we don’t like you Washington types – go fuck yourself.’ That’s exactly how they’re acting.” (Of course, not all of the newly arrived Texans are acting that way, at least not all the time. Commerce secretary Don Evans and presidential personnel chief Clay Johnson have both applied to the Chevy Chase Club, one of Washington’s most Washington-like institutions.)

At lunch, at dinner, over drinks, you’re apt to hear the same variety of complaints from Washington Republicans: “Who’s giving them advice on appointments?”

“The only people who call me back are 24-year-olds who don’t know who I am.”

“They asked me to apply for a position, I did, and they turned me down for it.”

And, again and again: “It’s been a year. Why haven’t I heard back about the job I applied for?”

The Bush people dismiss talk like this as sour grapes from unqualified locals, but that’s not all it is. This administration is secretive, obsessively so compared with the previous one, whose personnel dramas often unfolded in the Washington Post. Late in 1996, for example, White House aides began telling reporters that Clinton was going to make George Mitchell secretary of State. Women’s groups had a fit, demanding that the job go to a woman. Clinton caved. It was an embarrassing episode. Worse, it produced Madeleine Albright. The Bush people learned from this. They don’t tell anyone anything. This is great if you’re the White House communications director, but not so good if you’re waiting for a job.

There’s another factor. The White House has made a conscious decision to award jobs to influential Republicans in the states over influential Republicans inside Washington. The calculation is, If we have to choose between a former state senator who’s got a local following or a guy who’s spent his life on K Street, there’s no contest. To them, the outsider makes much better sense politically.

And it does, in a way. But it also alienates the administration’s allies in Washington, who understand it as a lack of loyalty. “I’ve been waiting eight years for a Republican,” goes the sentiment, “and now that we have one, he’s treating me with contempt.”

This is an old story, the tension between the newly arrived, who’ve come to run Washington, and the permanent residents, who believe (with some justification) that they already do. Like previous administrations, the Bush White House has acted undiplomatically. But that’s where the similarities end. It’s not that the Bush people don’t understand how Washington works. It’s that they don’t care. As for the line you often hear about how Beltway lobbyists have the Bush administration in their pocket: Real Beltway lobbyists laugh when they hear it.

Bush League