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The Chief Water Bug Departs

Lessons to be learned from Rahm Emanuel's departure.

Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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On October 1, Rahm Emanuel announced his departure as White House chief of staff, ending the shortest and most hapless tenure in that position since Bill Clinton replaced his childhood friend, Mack McLarty, in 1994. McLarty is a nice guy who wasn’t tough enough to bring order to Clinton’s White House. Emanuel is a tough guy who wasn’t mature enough to bring good judgment to Obama’s.

The Chief Water Bug Departs

What would Niccolò do?

According to Bob Woodward, National Security Adviser Jim Jones called Emanuel and his fellow political aides “the water bugs.” “They flit around,” Jones said. “Rahm gets an idea at 10 a.m. and wants a briefing by 4 p.m., and I will say no,” because the work can’t be done that quickly. According to Woodward, Jones believed “the water bugs did not understand war or foreign relations .  .  . and were too interested in measuring the short-term political impact of the president’s decisions in these areas.”

But Emanuel turned out not to be particularly good at measuring the political impact of the president’s decisions. Or was his sage political counsel too often rejected by the president—as he has suggested on not-so-deep background to friendly journalists?

Either way, Emanuel was supposed to be the experienced chief of staff to an inexperienced president, the Machiavellian operative aiding an idealistic leader, the wizened strategist protecting Obama from the usual mistakes of a new and callow chief executive. Among those mistakes: yielding too much authority to congressional leaders of your own party, who will tend to be partisan and interest-group-driven; surrounding the president with White House staff who quickly become smug, insular, and arrogant; and encouraging the president in his fantasy that he was elected because of his remarkable ability to sway the public, not because the party in the White House was unpopular and exhausted.

Emanuel failed to protect Obama from these temptations. He failed to check Pelosi and Reid. He failed to bring into the White House men and women of substance who could keep the president in touch with public opinion and objective realities. And how many times did Emanuel remind Obama that he, Obama, was no political genius, that he’d won the nomination despite losing most of the big primaries to Hillary Clinton, that he’d run behind congressional Democrats nationally, that his “mandate” had to be carefully nursed and broadened?

The answer is obvious. Emanuel reinforced rather than tempered Obama’s oversized self-confidence and self-referential arrogance. This is clear from the only memorable comment from Emanuel’s tenure, the one he made right after being selected: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” This may well go down in history as the most foolish and damaging pseudo-clever statement ever made by a chief of staff.

The prior recipient of this distinction was the late Donald Regan, President Reagan’s chief of staff from 1985 to 1987, who famously described his job as leading the shovel brigade that cleaned up after the circus elephants. The lead circus elephant about whom Regan was complaining was presumably President Reagan. For this foolish expression of disdain for his boss, among other reasons, Regan was fired.

But Emanuel’s foolish disdain was less for his boss than for his countrymen. Along with his fellow liberal best and brightest, Emanuel regarded the public as children who, rattled by the financial crisis, could be steamrolled into welcoming a big government agenda. This conceit was fatal to Obama, for it led an entire administration and an entire political party to believe that the smart set could easily re-shape American reality and spin the American people.

So Emanuel’s fatal conceit was crippling—to Obama. And if President Bush made a mistake by surrounding himself with too many annoying and self-important “Mayberry Machiavellis,” as former Bush adviser John J. DiIulio put it, President Obama made a worse mistake by selecting as his chief of staff a bantam cock pseudo-Machiavelli.

And it is Obama who’s paid the price. As the real Machiavelli remarks at the beginning of Chapter 22 of The Prince,

The choice of ministers is of no small importance to a prince; they are good or not according to the prudence of the prince. And the first conjecture that is to be made of the brain of a lord is to see the men he has around him; and when they are capable and faithful, he can always be reputed wise because he has known how to recognize them as capable and to maintain them as faithful. But if they are otherwise, one can always pass unfavorable judgment on him, because the first error he makes, he makes in this choice.

Obama made an error in choosing Emanuel. He now has a chance to do better, and begin to reorient his administration. But first, the new chief of staff has a lot of cleaning up to do, as Rahm Emanuel takes his circus parade to Chicago.

—William Kristol

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