By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
“Did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely. I’m willing to take my lumps,” President Obama told Brian Williams yesterday as part of five different afternoon interviews he gave, referring to recent troublesome cabinet nominations. Refreshing, says my colleague Bonnie Erbe, because apologizing didn’t come easy to Presidents No. 43 or No. 42.
I say President Obama should never have had to make that apology in the first place.
I was born and raised here in Washington, and was 2 months old when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One after President Kennedy’s assassination. While I can’t say I remember much about LBJ’s cabinet picks, I have seen my fair share of nominees come and go over the years.
In the old days, if you were nominated to a cabinet post and something came out about your past, you immediately removed your name from consideration. No question about it. You wrote a contrite letter to the president and you stepped aside. I can list all kinds of people who have done that over the years, but you wouldn’t recall their names because they left the spotlight so quickly--and humbly.
That’s because in Old Washington, no loyal member of the president’s team ever wanted to embarrass the president or create any sort of distraction from the president’s agenda. If there was a problem, you left. It’s just what you did. You also didn’t write kiss-and-tell books or otherwise cash in after your public service, but that’s another story.
Sure, there have been other nominees who hung in there--most notably, John Tower’s nomination for secretary of defense in 1989 comes to mind. But Tower did not remove his name from consideration at the insistence of President Bush No. 41, who was appalled at the personal attacks alleging that the senator drank too much. President Bush felt he and Tower had to stand up to the rumor mill on principle; the former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee had done nothing wrong to disqualify him from office, and had even offered to stop drinking. (If drinking disqualifies you from public office, no one in Washington would have a job!)
But things have changed. Problems with obeying the tax laws--which were previously deal-breakers for nominees Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, for example--are no longer reason to remove one’s name from consideration. And so Tom Daschle and Tim Geithner, for whatever reasons, did not step aside.
They chose to remain in the process--and in doing so, they forced the president and reluctant senators to publicly affirm their support for them, which I’m sure was awkward given their tax problems. And now the president feels he has to apologize to the American people for the nominations. With everything else the president has to deal with--the economy, the war, nuclear weapons in North Korea, genocide, you name it--and he has to spend his time in five interviews apologizing for what is basically a staff problem?
No one on the president’s team should ever put the boss in that situation. President Obama should never have had to make that apology.