It's Been Nice Knowing You

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Presidents, like spouses, can send clearer messages with what they don't say as what they do. Consider the case of Treasury Secretary John Snow. In part because of his longevity and known desire to depart, his head has often been mentioned among those that might roll as part of an extensive makeover being contemplated by the incoming chief of staff, Josh Bolten. In fact, there have been so many reports of his imminent departure since he was confirmed in January 2003 that some people refer to the affable Richmonder as "Job." With that in mind, gauge the temperature of the embrace when President Bush was asked, when the press was brought in at the end of a Roosevelt Room meeting on health-care initiatives, whether Snow was expected to stay on.

"Secretary Snow is here at the table," Bush began, quite factually. "He's been a part of this discussion. I'm glad you brought him up. He has been a valuable member of my administration, and I trust his judgment and appreciate his service."

The President likes to hold his cards close, so it's easy to misread or over-read his statements about things he doesn't care to talk about. But that sure sounds like Washington-speak for, as my mother and grandmother say when you're on the way out the door, "It's been nice knowing you." The Treasury Secretary is partly about inspiring confidence in the markets, so it was no help when the Bloomberg terminal beloved by traders and analysts carried the headline Wednesday morning, "Treasury's Snow Suffers From Faint Support in Robust Economy."

A Republican familiar with White House plans said that, indeed, Snow and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta (yes, he's still in the Cabinet) are likely to go. Mineta, a Democratic holdover from President Bill Clinton and a charter member of Bush's Cabinet, will not be pushed out but allowed to leave, sources said. Dr. Bolten is also applying his stethoscope to the offices of Intergovernmental Affairs and Cabinet liaison.

In the same six-minute, three-question exchange with reporters, the President used a word that provoked much head-scratching, even among some in the White House. Here's what the President said when asked about the plan for Bolten to succeed Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. on April 15: "I told Josh that he is — will organize the White House in such a way that he is comfortable with and that meets my needs. And my needs are to have good, crisp information so I can make decisions on behalf of the American people." He went on to say that the administration had "functioned very effectively under Andy Card, by the way."

The interesting word there is "crisp." Just what did he mean, and what is he missing now? Several people familiar with the President's thinking said he despises tangents and long-winded briefings and people who try cover their rears in a swath of verbiage and baloney. He wants "brief, to-the-point" information, said one person who often gives it. The implicit contrast with some on the current team was clear.

Sometimes, the message is more obvious. The President didn't exactly get all weepy when Rep. Tom DeLay, a fellow Texan and former House majority leader who once got red carpet treatment, announced he was leaving Congress. Bush appreciated and even depended on DeLay's ability to get things done, but some of his former aides and associates are central players in the lobbying corruption scandal that has become a headache for all Republicans.

"My reaction was it had to have been a very difficult decision for someone who loved representing his district in the state of Texas," Bush said. "I wished him all the very best and I know he's looking forward to — he's looking to the future." As they say back home: Here's your hat. What's your hurry?