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POLITICS OCTOBER 17, 2005

Welcome To The Hackocracy

The events of the past months have awakened the press to the true nature of the Bush administration. It is overrun with hacks--that is, government officials with waifish resumes padded like the Michelin man, whose political connections have won them important national responsibilities. But, in the face of this rush to flay the Bush hacks, we should consider their achievements.


To fully appreciate the virtues of this administration, we must first recall the administration that came before. Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton recruited a small army of Arkansans and Rhodes scholars to the West Wing. Although there was the occasional kindergarten buddy who was out of his depth, most of these FOBs (friends of Bill) were insufferable wonks who never let you forget their dense resumes. President Bush put his finger on the smug mindset of these Clinton meritocrats when he said, "They're all of a sudden smarter than the average person because they happen to have an Ivy League degree."


Now we can consider this problem solved. The Bush era has taken government out of the hands of the hyper-qualified and given it back to the common man. This new breed may not have what the credentialists sneeringly call "relevant experience." Their alma maters may not always be "accredited." But they have something the intellectual snobs of yore never had: loyalty. If not loyalty to country, then at least loyalty to party and to the guy who got them the job. And their loyalty has been rewarded: Even if they fail, they know they can move up the chain until they find a job they can succeed in or until a major American city is destroyed, whichever comes first.


The hackocracy, of course, reflects the virtues of its architect, George W. Bush. Like Michael Brown and lesser known hacks, the president hasn't allowed personal setbacks to stymie him. The old-fashioned values of fortitude and family have given him the strength to rebound from a doomed oil company called Arbusto, a doomed congressional candidacy, and catastrophic failures at Harken Energy. That may be why, while cronies populate every presidency, no administration has etched the principles of hackocracy into its governing philosophy as deeply as this one. If there's an underappreciated corner of the bureaucracy to fill, it has found just the crony (or college roommate of a crony), party operative (or cousin of a party operative) to fill it. To honor this achievement, we've drawn up a list of the 15 biggest Bush administration hacks--from the highest levels of government to the civil servant rank and file. The TNR 15 is a diverse group--from the assistant secretary of commerce who started his career by supplying Bush with Altoids to the Republican National Committee chair-turned-Veterans Affairs secretary who forgot about wounded Iraq war vets--but they all share two things: responsibility and inexperience.


Although he could not possibly have envisioned what Bush has accomplished, Theodore Roosevelt delivered the single most poetic appreciation of this hackocratic style: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again…."


Bush, who may or may not be familiar with the Bull Moose, has lived and governed by this dictum. Never before have we so rewarded the valiant striver who comes up short by placing the fate of the nation in his hands. Never before have so many gotten so far with so little.




15. ISRAEL HERNANDEZ


Assistant Secretary for Trade Promotion and Director General of the United States and Foreign Commercial Service, Department of Commerce (confirmation pending)


Fresh out of college and seeking a job on George W. Bush's 1994 Texas gubernatorial campaign, Israel Hernandez showed up an hour early for his interview with the candidate. Impressed by his punctuality, Bush hired Hernandez within days and eventually invited him to live with the Bush family in their Dallas home, where Hernandez reportedly became like an older brother to Jenna and Barbara Bush. Serving as Bush's travel aide for the next few years, "He was always there with the Altoids, the speech box, the schedule, whatever I needed," Bush later wrote in his autobiography. After getting a master's degree at (where else?) the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M (named after H.W.), Hernandez--or, as Bush called him, "Altoid Boy"--joined Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and later worked in the White House as an assistant to Karl Rove. There, he helped choreograph Bush's events and was once made part of the first lady's official delegation on a trip to Europe so that he could keep an eye on Jenna. All of which, apparently, was good preparation for managing more than 1,800 employees in more than 80 countries, because, earlier this year, Bush nominated the 35-year-old Hernandez to serve as an assistant secretary of Commerce and to run the United States and Foreign Commercial Service, the federal government's key export promotion agency.



14. ANDREW MANER


Chief Financial Officer, Department of Homeland Security


Andrew Maner comes to his job with unimpeachable credentials--not in finance or accounting, admittedly, but as a dues-payer in the Bush family empire. In the first Bush administration, Maner helped to plan presidential travel and served as a junior press aide. Later, he followed the defeated George H.W. Bush back to Texas to be a spokesman and political fixer for the ex-president. After several private sector years working in information technology and procurement, he took over the U.S. Customs Office of Trade Relations, whose mission is to foster "positive relationships with the international trade community." Billing himself as a trade expert, Maner called the Customs gig a "logical next step in [my] career." Less logical, however, was his leap (after a short stint as chief of staff to the Customs commissioner) to managing DHS's sprawling $40 billion budget. Given his slim management background, it's convenient that Maner landed the only Cabinet department CFO slot that doesn't require Senate confirmation. Perhaps it also explains why, when DHS officials recently unveiled a revamped organizational chart, Maner's office was accidentally omitted. (Hack bonus: "Of all the things we do in the Department, charts may not be our strength," said the Department's undersecretary for management, Janet Hale.)




13. CLAIRE BUCHAN


Chief of Staff, Department of Commerce


As deputy press secretary at the White House, Claire Buchan gained a reputation as a kept-in-the-dark spokesbot who was often relegated to baby-sitting reporters on long trips. But all that changed last spring, when Buchan was promoted to chief of staff at the Commerce Department, where she now helps the secretary oversee a $6.3 billion budget and some 38,000 employees. Buchan owes this stroke of good fortune to her years in the Bush family trenches. Previously, she served as a public affairs underling for the Treasury Department under former President Bush, a flack for the Republican National Committee, and (during the Clinton years) an image czar for the lawn care, extermination, and appliance repair company ServiceMaster. Some of Buchan's erstwhile colleagues in the White House press corps were left speechless when her new assignment was announced in February. One White House reporter who worked closely with Buchan for five years called her "the most useless in a Bush universe of enforced uselessness. She took empty banality to a new low."



12. PAUL HOFFMAN


Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Department of the Interior


Paul Hoffman is an avid angler, hunter, skier, and horseman. So it was only natural to tap this former chief of the Chamber of Commerce in Cody, Wyoming, (population 9,000) to help run the National Park Service. Sure, Hoffman had no parks experience other than recreating in them and, as head of the Cody Chamber, advocating for more snowmobiles in nearby Yellowstone National Park. But he had spent four years in the 1980s working as the state director for then-Wyoming Representative Dick Cheney. Since arriving at the Interior Department in 2002, Hoffman has demonstrated a knack for thinking outside the box. In April 2003, he went against the wishes of the staff of Yellowstone and asked the U.N. World Heritage Committee to remove the park from its "In Danger List." Last year, he overruled geologists at the Grand Canyon National Park and instructed the park's visitor centers to stock a creationist book that explained how God made the canyon 6,000 years ago, ordering up a flood to wipe out "the wickedness of man." And, this year, Hoffman pushed for wholesale revisions to the Park Service's management policies. Instead of giving priority to protecting natural resources, Hoffman proposed that managers emphasize multiple uses for their parks--including snowmobiling, Jet-Skiing, grazing, drilling, and mining. After Hoffman's proposed reforms set off a firestorm of criticism from Park Service employees and members of Congress--"The inmates are in charge of the asylum," one Park Service retiree complained--the Bush administration claimed that Hoffman's suggestions were "no longer in play" and that he had merely been playing "devil's advocate."




11. PATRICK RHODE


Acting Deputy Director Federal Emergency Management Agency


As acting deputy director of FEMA, 36-year-old Patrick Rhode had, until recently, the unenviable job of backstopping the hapless Michael Brown, a man who needed much backstopping. Unfortunately, it's not clear that Rhode is much more qualified than Brown to be managing the nation's worst disasters. Before joining FEMA, the biggest disaster he had helped manage was the Small Business Administration (see Hector Barreto, page 23)--and even that was something of a stretch. Rhode entered federal government in 2001 as deputy director of advance operations for the Bush White House, a job he had also held for Bush's 2000 campaign. Never fear, though: Rhode has covered disasters--as a TV anchor for local network affiliates in Alabama and Arkansas, in which capacity he developed "an acute interest in what responders do in times of crises." Perhaps not acute enough. He recently said that FEMA's response to Katrina was "probably one of the most efficient and effective responses in the country's history."



10. STEVEN LAW


Deputy Secretary, Department of Labor


Since 2004, Steven Law has helped run a department with 17,000 employees and an annual budget of over $50 billion. Pretty good for a guy who started out as a lowly Capitol Hill legislative aide. In 1990, Law's boss, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, tapped him to serve as campaign manager for his reelection race. Law didn't disappoint, running a notably nasty campaign that insinuated McConnell's Democratic opponent was both mentally ill and a drug addict. Law returned to Washington as McConnell's chief of staff, and, six years later, when McConnell was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he made Law the group's executive director, relying on him for help in vacuuming up campaign contributions for Republican Senate candidates and thwarting campaign finance reform legislation. In each job he did for McConnell, Law proved to be an unusually dedicated--and worshipful--worker. Asked once by Campaigns & Elections to name his political heroes, Law answered: "Ronald Reagan, for his vision of America; Abraham Lincoln, for his moral statesmanship; and Mitch McConnell, for his principle and tenacity." It was little wonder, then, that, in 2001, the newly appointed Labor Secretary Elaine Chao--who happens to be McConnell's wife--hired Law as her chief of staff, a stepping stone to his current position; after all, once you've found such loyal help, you want to keep it in the family.




9. HAL STRATTON


Chairman, Consumer Product Safety Commission


A former state representative and attorney general in New Mexico, Hal Stratton never asked for his current job, protecting American citizens from such dangers as lead-laced toy jewelry and flammable Halloween costumes. Instead, the former geology major who went on to co-chair the local Lawyers for Bush during the 2000 campaign initially wanted a job in the Interior Department. "That didn't work out," he told the Albuquerque Journal, "but I told them, `Don't count me out'… and they came up with this." "This" being the not-unimportant position of deciding which of 15,000 types of consumer products pose a health risk and might need to be recalled. Shortly before Stratton's confirmation hearing, Senator Ron Wyden expressed concern that Stratton "has no demonstrable track record on public safety." (Bill Clinton's CPSC chief, Ann Brown, spent 20 years as a consumer advocate and served as vice president of the Consumer Federation of America.) But now he does have a track record: rare public hearings and a paucity of new safety regulations, as well as regular (often industry-sponsored) travels to such destinations as China, Costa Rica, Belgium, Spain, and Mexico. But at least Stratton won't let personal bias influence him: Despite saying that he wouldn't let his own daughters play with water yo-yos--rubber toys that are outlawed in several countries because of concerns that children could be strangled by them--he refused to ban them in the United States.




8. MARK MCKINNON


Member, Broadcasting Board of Governors (confirmation pending)


The Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees Voice of America and other U.S. media beamed to the Middle East; and, in the spirit of accurately representing the United States, it reserves seats for members of both major political parties. For one of the four Democratic slots, President Bush recently nominated Mark McKinnon, or "M-Cat" as he affectionately calls him. M-Cat's Democratic credentials, however, are somewhat wanting. McKinnon's career highlights include overseeing media strategy for Bush's two presidential bids, in which capacity he masterminded a spot predicting that John Kerry would "Weaken [the] Fight Against Terrorists." And, in last year's campaign, his company, Maverick Media, accepted over $177 million in fees from Bush and the Republican National Committee--money we assume was not intended to help return the Democrats to power.




7. STEWART SIMONSON


Assistant Secretary for Public Health and Emergency Preparedness, Department of Health and Human Services


According to his official biography, Stewart Simonson is the Health and Human Services Department's point man "on matters related to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies." Hopefully, he has taken crash courses on smallpox and avian flu, because, prior to joining HHS in 2001, Simonson's background was not in public health, but … public transit. He'd previously been a top official at the delay-plagued, money-hemorrhaging passenger rail company Amtrak. Before that, he was an adviser to Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, specializing in crime and prison policy. When Thompson became HHS secretary in 2001, he hired Simonson as a legal adviser and promoted him to his current post shortly before leaving the Department last year. Simonson's biography boasts that he "supervised policy development for Project BioShield," a program designed to speed the manufacture of crucial vaccines and antidotes. "That effort, however, has by most accounts bogged down and shown few results," The Washington Post reported last month.



6. HECTOR BARRETO


Administrator, Small Business Administration


No one can accuse Hector Barreto of being unfamiliar with small business. His Los Angeles firm, Barreto Insurance & Financial Services Company, had only ten employees. Alas, now that he is in charge of a bigger operation--the Small Business Administration (SBA) has over 3,000 employees, a budget of about $600 million, and a portfolio of loans totaling $45 billion--Barreto is struggling. Last year, the SBA failed to notify Congress that it needed additional funding for its largest and most popular loan program and was forced to temporarily shutter it because, as Barreto's spokesperson explained, it was "out of money." Meanwhile, the SBA was doing such a poor job managing the $5 billion in loans the government set aside to help small businesses recover from September 11 that, according to an Associated Press investigation, the vast majority of the money went to businesses not affected by the terrorist attacks--including a South Dakota country radio station, a Utah dog boutique, and more than 100 Dunkin' Donuts and Subway sandwich shops. Last month, the Senate Small Business Committee, prompted by complaints from Gulf Coast small-business owners, held hearings on the SBA's response to Hurricane Katrina. Barreto pledged that his agency would approve Katrina-related loans in days, not months, but a SBA deputy conceded in late September that, out of 12,000 loan applications from small businesses affected by the hurricane, the SBA had so far approved only 76.





5. DAVID WILKINS


American Ambassador to Canada



An unspoken rule dictates that politically appointed ambassadors should be seen and not heard--or, at the very least, not heard provoking international incidents with close U.S. allies. But David Wilkins--a former South Carolina legislator whose chief contribution to world affairs before this year was raising $200,000 for President Bush's 2004 campaign--is not one to stand on ceremony. Though he'd only been to Canada once (Niagara Falls) prior to his nomination in April, the Bush Ranger assured Congress that "I won't be afraid to talk about the tough issues." A man of his word, Wilkins promptly escalated the two countries' dispute over softwood lumber by accusing Canadians of being overly emotional and by threatening an all-out trade war that would have affected multiple industries, from broadcasting to eggs. The Canadian government fought back, however, and, although generally disinclined toward mea culpas--"You talking about regrets by the United States?" he asked a Canadian reporter with incredulity--Wilkins eventually admitted his approach to the lumber dispute had been flawed. "My attempt to bring the emotion down increased the emotion," he said. To demonstrate his diplomatic sensitivity, he continues to open speeches with a jolly, "Bonjour, y'all!"



4. JIM NICHOLSON


Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs


In contrast to the four most recent VA heads--who had previously held leadership positions with Disabled American Veterans, the Department of Defense, a state-level VA department, and VA itself--Jim Nicholson brings a refreshing lack of experience to veterans' advocacy. Although he is one of the country's 25 million military veterans, Nicholson--who, after Vietnam, went into real-estate law and development in Colorado--is best known as a campaign veteran. He chaired the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2000, raising close to $380 million for the 2000 cycle. In Bush's first term, Nicholson was rewarded with the ambassadorship to the Holy See. But he traded vespers for vets last February, joining his brother John, who was already head of the National Cemetery Administration. In June, he admitted that VA had underestimated the number of veterans who would be seeking medical treatment this year by nearly 80,000 because it had failed to take into account the surge in enrollment by veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts--13,700 of whom have suffered blown-off limbs, bullet wounds, and the like. The miscalculation was a surprise to Congress, since Nicholson had written on April 5: "I can assure you that VA does not need [additional money] to continue to provide timely, quality service." Republican House Appropriations Committee Chair Jerry Lewis said VA's failure to identify the problem and notify Congress earlier "borders on stupidity."



3. REAR ADMIRAL CRISTINA BEATO


Acting Assistant Secretary for Health, Department of Health and Human Services


In June 2004, Cristina Beato admitted to her hometown newspaper that she hadn't paid much attention to the details of her resume. That's too bad, because those silly little details seem to have stalled her confirmation for assistant secretary for health for over two years now. Beato said she earned a master's of public health in occupational medicine from the University of Wisconsin (but the university doesn't even offer that degree). She claimed to be "one of the principal leaders who revolutionized medical education in American universities by implementing the Problem Based learning curriculum" (but the curriculum was developed while Beato was still a medical student). She listed "medical attach?" to the American Embassy in Turkey as a job she held in 1986 (but that position didn't exist until 1995). She also boasted that she had "established" the University of New Mexico's occupational health clinic (but the clinic existed before she was hired, and there was even another medical director before her). For her part, Beato has offered a simple explanation: English is her third language, after French and her native Spanish, and sometimes the language barrier is just too much to handle. How does one say "pants on fire" in Spanish?


2. JOHN PENNINGTON


Director, Region Ten, Federal Emergency Management Agency


The Pacific Northwest is a catastrophe-prone area-- from tsunamis and volcanic eruptions in Washington and Oregon to wildfires in Idaho and oil pipeline ruptures in Alaska. That's why former Washington Representative Jennifer Dunn knew that FEMA needed "a natural" to head its disaster response efforts in the region. And that's exactly what Dunn said she found in 38-year-old John Pennington. Pennington would have to be a natural, given his utter lack of disaster-relief experience. A former state representative who ran a coffee business with his wife in rural Washington, Pennington served as Cowlitz County co-chairman of the Bush campaign in 2000. Dunn, who had been the Bush campaign's state chairperson, approached Pennington about the FEMA post, to which he was appointed in 2001. Alas, in the wake of former FEMA Director Michael Brown's resignation, Pennington's disaster of a resume has come under increasing scrutiny. Last month, The Seattle Times reported that, just before he was appointed to his FEMA post, Pennington received his bachelor's degree from an unaccredited California correspondence school that federal investigators later described as a "diploma mill." Pennington's defenders have responded to questions about his qualifications by arguing that he has surrounded himself with competent staff.



1. HARRIET MIERS


White House Counsel, Nominee for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court


When we started researching this guide to the Bush hackocracy, nobody was sure who would wind up as number one. Competition was fierce. From under every bureaucratic rock, out scurried a Bush buddy. But we endeavored to be fair. There was spirited debate over the nuances between merely mediocre officials blindly loyal to the president and those with a demonstrated history of incompetence. (Alas, Andrew Card wound up on the cutting room floor.) Some argued that, by our own strict criteria, the president himself should be judged the number-one hack, but our deference to the wisdom of the electorate kept him off the list.


Truth be told, Harriet Miers could have easily slipped through quality control. But fate intervened. On Monday, Bush nominated Miers, the personal lawyer who fixed the paperwork on his fishing cabin, to the Supreme Court of the United States. Suddenly, it was no longer a competition. "I picked the best person I could find," Bush said Tuesday. And so have we.


We'd like to think that our process was slightly less arbitrary than the president's. Judging such matters is admittedly subjective, but if one were to express hackishness as a formula, it would look something like the adjacent equation:


HACKISHNESS = Cronyism x Danger to the Republic / Qualifications


Miers's croniness quotient is high. After all, the president has given her five jobs over the past eleven years. And senior White House aides have repeatedly remarked about her devotion to Bush. A Bush official's Danger to the Republic factor can generally be gleaned by the importance of his or her new job. And, while we grant that some unqualified candidates have turned out to be capable justices (see Jeffrey Rosen, "Judge Not," page 12), Miers's lifetime appointment to the highest position Bush is authorized to fill is like winning the hack lotto.


What, then, about Miers's qualifications? This is where she left the competition in the dust. Take, for example, her two-year stint on the Dallas City Council. Although she may not have been guided by any awe-inspiring understanding of constitutional law, she is credited with calming down a crowd of protesters after a county commissioner punched a police officer.


In announcing his choice, Bush pointed to her storied career as chairman of the Texas Lottery Commission. Although the Commission has historically not produced many Supreme Court justices, Bush has reason to be pleased with her lottery service. Miers may not have dealt with issues like civil rights or the death penalty, but she dealt with bingo. As chairman, she opined that she wanted all bingo-related games "to look and feel and smell like the game of bingo," which seems like a reasonable position.


Miers's solid job at the Lottery Commission and her other work for Bush catapulted her into the upper ranks of the White House. After three years as staff secretary, she beat out Brett M. Kavanaugh, a bright conservative lawyer with a John Roberts--like resum?, for the job of White House counsel. It was this job that positioned her to lead Bush's search for a court nominee.


This is a quite a resum?, even before getting to some of Miers's legal writings. A search of the Nexis news database returns three articles by Miers. One is an opinion piece urging legislative calm in the wake of a string of deadly shootings. The second reveals Miers, who ran the corporate law firm of Locke Liddell & Sapp, to be an expert on a legal issue of great importance to the American people: managing the merger of two firms. The final article is a 1996 ABA Journal piece advertising the American Bar Association's new telephone seminars. "If you have heard any of the buzzwords of product promotions lately," she writes cheerfully, "we hope you will spot 'ABA Connection.'"


In hindsight, Harriet Miers was always the obvious choice for the Supreme Court. She is the logical conclusion of the unchecked Bush administration hackocracy. Bush's case for Miers actually rests on her being a crony. "Because of our closeness," he said Tuesday, "I know the character of the person."


In Federalist No. 76, Alexander Hamilton warned that, in presenting nominations to the Senate, a president "would be both ashamed and afraid" to nominate cronies--or, as Hamilton called them, "obsequious instruments of his pleasure." Maybe politics was different back in the 1780s, but we have watched Bush appoint many obsequious instruments of his pleasure. It may be his legacy: George W. Bush--he took the shame and fear out of cronyism.


By the TNR Staff

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