Cheeseburgers and Patsies in the White House

If it wasn't for the cheeseburgers, I might have found this morning's resignation of White House Chief of Staff Andy Card touching. Certainly the reporters– and I use that word loosely– on the various cable news stations did, but then they were just following the White House's lead and ignoring the cheeseburgers. The mood the White House was going for was Hallmark-card maudlin, as the Associated Press' description of event makes clear:

Gripping the podium, Card said in his farewell: "You're a good man, Mr. President." Card's eyes were watery. Card said he looks forward to just being Bush's friend. Bush then gave him five quick slaps on the back and the two walked out of the Oval Office together.

The cable chatterers seem to buy that line about being friends, ignoring not only the cheeseburgers, but also the fact that the Bushies couldn't even be bothered slapping the traditional fig leaf of wants-to-spend-more-time-with-his-family on Card's resignation. No, just five slaps on the back and he's on his way out the door.

It was only five months ago that cable news was filled with speculation that Card was about to eclipse Karl Rove in influence in the Bush Administration, and maybe even boot Karl out. Back then, Billmon gave a much more realistic assessment of Card than any being offered after today's moist-eyed announcement: "Card... is as dense as a truck load of gravel– a half-full truck load of gravel."

On his blog, Whiskey Bar, Billmon recalled his own encounters with Card, during his days as a journalist.

I first encountered Card when he was a special assistant in the Reagan White House -- having arrived there as a Bush loyalist in 1983. [The Bush in question is, of course, Bush the Elder, a reluctant Reagan's choice for Vice President. W is still just a crushing disappointment to his family at this point, instead of being a crushing disappointment to the nation.– Paul] Back then, in the twilight of the Cleveland mob's stranglehold on the international, the Teamsters were steady clients of the Republican Party, and Card had inherited the service contract when his boss, GOP wardheeler Ed Rollins, left the administration. Card promptly found himself in the middle of a jurisdictional dispute between the Teamsters and a federal employee union, which had dug up evidence of White House interference on behalf of the Teamsters in the union's drive to organize civilian workers at an Oklahoma army base. The story ended up in the Washington Post, and Card ended up holding the bag.

When I interviewed him, I could tell fairly quickly that a.) he definitely wasn't the sharpest chisel in the White House toolbox (and this wasn't exactly the Leonardo da Vinci administration) and b.) he had only the vaguest understanding of what Rollins and company had been up to. Card, in other words, was the patsy in the deal -- something he complained about quite openly when we spoke. At the time, the Bush people were something of an oppressed minority in an executive office staffed by hardcore Reaganites (Bush consigliere Jim Baker had already split to play Master of the Universe at Treasury) and Card seemed cast as the type. He struck me as a sad sack, a minor league patronage player who had already reached the level of his own incompetence. A future FEMA administrator, in other words.

Loyalty to the Bush clan, and willingness to be left holding the bag– as Card was this morning for the administration's Nixonian-level of unpopularity– will bring rewards, even to the very dense.

But Card managed to solidify his position as a loyal Bush family retainer, and when George I took the throne, he ended up as deputy chief of staff under John Sununu -- the most politically inept Mensa Society member on the planet. Card (ever the patsy) supposedly was the one delegated to tell Sununu he'd been canned. To someone like Big John -- who clearly regarded himself as the original version of "Bush's brain" -- it must have seemed like the ultimate insult.

Card's reward was a minor cabinet post -- Secretary of Transportation, which was, if anything, an even less important job then than it is now, meaning it was only moderately higher than Card's level of incompetence. That moved him out of my journalistic world for awhile, but every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of him in bumbling action, like when he was tasked with coordinating the federal government's response to Hurricane Andrew -- a kind of Bush family dress rehearsal for the Katrina fiasco.

Card's resistible rise continued under Bush the Lesser, though his new rank brought with it new humiliations. I am referring, of course, to the cheeseburgers.


Billmon remembers the cheeseburgers:

Card's long stint as the Shrub's master of ceremonies hasn't exactly raised his profile. In the only Bush II kiss-and-tell memoir to date (Ron Suskind's as-told-to account of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's stormy tenure, The Price of Loyalty) Card is mentioned frequently, but usually only in passing. He's in all the meetings, but rarely says anything worth repeating. The most revealing passage in the book shows Shrub treating him like a waiter -- and a rathery dim-witted one at that:

"Go get me Andy Card," Bush said to one of the Secret Service agents. Card, the designee as chief of staff, entered from an adjoining room . . . Bush looked impatiently at Card, hard-eyed. "You're the chief of staff. You think you're up to getting us some cheeseburgers?"

Card nodded. No one laughed. He all but raced out of the room.

The picture that emerges is of someone who has access, who is in the inner circle (and just about the only non-Texan in it) but who has virtually no influence, on either policy or politics.

And now Card "looks forward to just being Bush's friend", which I suppose means he'll now be fetching burgers for free.

Card didn't say what his future plans were, being given his talents, I'd like to make a modest suggestion:


Best of luck, Andy.


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