President Bush has a pivotal decision before him. With his approval ratings surging-in the wrong direction-deciding on who should primarily field questions from the ever-hostile media couldn't be more vital, he, along with his closest advisors, must figure. Now that the position of White House Press Secretary has abruptly opened up, here is one big chance to try and stop, or at least stem, the slide.
The man (or woman) who fields question after question from the Press Corps is quite often the indistinguishable face of the Administration-his words are the not only the president's thoughts, but his very vision of America's future.
So, whoever fills that billet next, goes the conventional wisdom, had better have a peerless tongue; or bring some pizzazz, dazzling spunk that oozes out of every pore.
Or a combination thereof, maybe.
White House insiders, speaking under conditions of anonymity, claim Mr. Bush and his team have pared the list of names down to five. After repeated leaks by insiders-cheerleaders and dissenters-relevant weaknesses and strengths of the candidates are starting to take shape. A finalized, no turning back decision should be arrived at shortly.
The pros and cons, what Mr. Bush likes and dislikes about the five, were discussed in a recent meeting inside the hallowed walls of the Oval Office. Only the president's inner circle, and their essential functionaries, were invited.
1st up was Dan Senor, the former spokesman for the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority), the entity that once oversaw Iraq under the Honorable Paul Bremer. Mr. Bush was told Mr. Senor would be a solid, no-risk choice. His long years of spot-free government service and his well documented role as a spokesman in that pressure cooker the world knows as post-Saddam Iraq would seem to be just the ticket.
Mr. Bush, however, didn't seem all that impressed. He was alleged to have said, "Uh, I don't know. The less people are reminded about Iraq, the better. Besides, with all the carping going on about illegal immigration from Mexico, I don't think Senor Dan would be the right guy for the job at this time."
2nd in line for mooting was Victoria Clarke, a one-time spokeswoman for the Pentagon. When Mr. Bush asked about her history, a female aide to Alberto Gonzalez, the Attorney General, said Ms. Clarke was a one-time spokeswoman for the Pentagon. The President told the aide to go find out more information on Miss Clarke, so he could give her candidacy full consideration. The aide has yet to report back.
The 3rd possibility did pique the interest of some of the senior advisors: Tony Snow, of mostly friendly FOX News-Television and Radio. Bright, eloquent and genial, with a long history of gently pushing politics that would put a smile on Ronald Reagan, if he were still kicking, Mr. Snow seemed perfect as the forward, smiling face of Compassionate Conservatism.
But, once again, Mr. Bush threw cold water on the nomination.
"For one thing," the President reasoned, "Mr. Snow is really, really conservative-I think he'd have a hard time putting a positive spin on all the money we didn't' stop spending after enacting all them tax cuts. Also . . . something 'bout that man's last name . . . I don't know. Might get people speculating once again 'bout my sobriety."
Number four, a nominee put forth by Mr. Bush, his very own self, and seconded by none, would have seemed to be the hands-down winner. The president felt, hypothetically and excitedly, how neat it'd be if Van Damme, when posed with a question that had the potential to put his new boss in a bad light, would let loose a hellacious war cry, then spring out into the Press Corps and kick the living bejesus out of the liberal reporter. And anybody else standing nearby, also certain to be liberals.
"Imagine," Mr. Bush exulted to the group at large, his eyes bright and wide, "Van Damme opening up a can of whoop-butt on that loud-mouth hag, Helen Thomas. Plus, he ain't that tall-standing next to me, I'd look like a big man, even bigger than a bonafide karate star.
My poll numbers are gonna soar, just like that stupid hat on Helen's stupid head, right after Van Damme kicks it clean off."
Seated to the right of the president, Mr. Cheney the V.P. made his opinion known; that is, after his face, already pale, blanched. He quickly prevailed upon his boss that having the press secretary beating up members of the media, in broad daylight, would hardly boost poll numbers, at least in the long run. Additionally, piped in Karen Hughes, in town visiting, another problem had surfaced during his preliminary employment interview: "Mr. Van Damme was so difficult, and boring, to communicate with, not much was learned about his history, or even his desire as to whether he really wanted the job."
"Well," Mr. Bush said in closing with regard to Van Damme's candidacy, "keep at it. He might not can't speak well, but he's one hell of a physical specimen. I'd have had him do the press gatherings in tight spandex and nothing else."
The bizarre looks of incredulity, which erupted on each and every face in the room, except for the man behind and off to the left behind the boss's desk, didn't give Mr. Bush's wagging tongue pause for even a beat.
" I mean, I would have gone with Arnold, but he's tied up in California; or Texas Walker, but his show got canceled, and I already got enough losers sucking the life out of my Administration."
That last was said with an askance look by the president in Donald Rumsfeld's direction.
The final candidate, an entry no one would as of yet would own up to, was put on the table: singer, entertainer, scofflaw and all around substance abuser, James Brown.
Unfortunately, as Condi Rice was quick to point out, Mr. Brown had one of the same problems as the previous, unorthodox candidate: He was almost impossible to understand. Furthermore, added Josh Bolten, the newly minted Chief of Staff, his appearance was ghastly.
That was then Karl Rove, from his honored place behind and at to left of the president, spoke up for the first time. He, who many pundits claim is the paramount Machiavelli behind the throne, pointedly observed, "Impossible to understand, Condi? Ghastly, you say, Josh?"
Both, along with the rest of the room, including the president, readily agreed.
"Then, I think he might be our man."
Dead silence, after all the gasps had been let out, greeted Mr. Rove. Most everyone in the room, for certain, thought he must have taken up marijuana, in the very recent past.
"Impossible to understand, for sure, but in a way that is unique and entertaining," explained Karl. "Ghastly, as in so disturbing, one can't keep his eyes off of him," he added, his tone a tad sly.
"What are you gettin' at, Karl?" snapped the President.
"Put it together, George, and you've got someone at the podium who'll cause the biggest news gridlock this country has yet to see.
"If any of those media bastards can shake the trance, which the very sight of him creates, and does manage to fire off a question, they'll next succumb to another trance: numbly listening, for hours, as he rambles on about any and every thing under God's sun, without every really' answering the original question."
Everyone remained silent, not sure what to think of that logic.
"Don't you get it, see the beauty of it?" passionately asked Mr. Rove, stirring the group out of their reverie. "All that damned negative reporting, at least from the Press briefings, gets stalled in its tracks!"
That was all well and good, for most people in the meeting, which shortly broke up afterward. But for President Bush, a man at history's crossroads who had deeper concerns, it left him with a hollow feeling in his guts. "Karl," he said to his number one counsel, the man who seemed to always have that certain magic touch that, if it didn't outright turn the bad into gold, at least covered it up with something shiny, "how's James Brown being my press secretary going to improve my poll numbers?"
"It won't Mr. President," coldly replied Rove over his shoulder as he was walking out the door. "Nothing's going to do that, at least not significantly or continually. Capturing Bin Laden, gas going under 2.50 a gallon, or Rumsfeld resigning-any or all of that won't be of much help this late in the game.
"So, I figure, let's just put Mr. Brown out there, try to stop the bleeding poll numbers, stabilize matters, and have a few laughs."
"But . . . Karl?" muttered, almost whimpered, Mr. Bush.
"We've had a good run, George, cherish it for all it was worth."
And then he was gone, leaving Mr. Bush alone with his thoughts, which were sinking faster than his perennially poor polling numbers.