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West Wing Loyalty: A Fine Line

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During his father's administration, George W. Bush was dubbed the "loyalty thermometer" for his unofficial job at the White House of monitoring and controlling leaks and criticism.

As president, he's used that gauge on his own political appointees more effectively than any White House in modern times. One indication of that came with the recent removal of his two top economic officials, which also raises a question about whether such discipline stifles internal White House debate and, indirectly, national debate.

Before he was forced to resign, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill broke the code that limits criticism to inside the White House only. He publicly voiced doubts about broad tax cuts and warned about looming deficits. Top economic adviser Larry Lindsey strayed when he told a newspaper that an Iraq war could cost $200 billion. These were not the main reasons for their ousters, but the White House certainly was displeased with their comments.

Early this year, Mike Parker, director of the Army Corps of Engineers, testified on the Hill that Bush budget cuts would have a "negative impact" on the Corps and that he had no "warm and fuzzy" feelings toward the administration. Soon after, he was given 30 minutes to resign or be fired.

Even after an official leaves this administration, he can feel the heat of rebuke. John DiIulio, who once led the president's faith-based initiative office, recently told Esquire magazine that the White House was completely run by the "political arm" of Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser. Mr. DiIulio called it the "reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis," and at first stood by his comments. But after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced them as "baseless and groundless," DiIulio retracted them - as "groundless and baseless."

One can argue that the White House must not air internal disputes once the president makes a decision. It contributes to a smooth-running White House, and certainly in wartime adds impetus for unity. But sometimes truth-telling in public is needed. Looming deficits, for instance, concern many people in the US.

Mr. Rove and others insist the White House itself is a safe zone for debate. Bob Woodward's new book, "Bush at War," shows this to be true at least in the case of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who often has been odd man out, compared with the hawkish vice president and defense secretary.

But could Mr. Powell be an exception? Because of his stature, he's mostly untouchable. Perhaps others might not feel as safe. After Mr. Parker was forced out, an official from another agency said he didn't want to take on the Office of Management and Budget because "we don't want to wind up like Mike Parker and others."

Loyalty has a very fine edge at the White House. Just over the line from discipline and unity is the fear of speaking up, which in turn can suppress debate.


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