Tuesday, December 11, 2007


By William Fisher

Maybe the story is apocryphal, maybe not, but here it is anyway, courtesy of the Republican National Convention blog:

When Dana Perino was six years old, she stood on a milk crate in her Denver house, held up an American flag, and told her parents, "I'm gonna work in the White House." By third grade, she and her father, Leo Perino, were debating the news of the day at the dinner table.

"He wanted me to have read the newspapers and to have picked out one or two articles to discuss by the time he got home and then we always watched the evening news together and my Dad and I would always watch the Sunday shows as well," said Perino.

Which makes it even more bizarre that the president’s press secretary never heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After all, she’s an educated person -- Ponderosa High School, the University of Southern Colorado, grad school at the University of Illinois, work on the Hill, and so forth.

And the event she says she never heard of isn’t some arcane happening from ancient history. It played out only ten years before she was born. And it wasn’t just any ordinary event. It was arguably the Cold War’s scariest threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, also known as M.A.D. It was the time when U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev faced off over Soviet ballistic missiles being stationed in Cuba, 90 miles from the Florida coast. Long story short: Nikita blinked first and M.A.D. was averted.

Now, not to be uncharitable, none of us can know everything. And Ms. Perino’s cluelessness is nowhere near as egregious as the President not knowing that there are Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs before he invades a country where both groups live.

But the Perino deficit strikes me as emblematic of much that’s wrong in the Bush Administration:

A secretary of defense who knows nothing about military history, military strategy, or how the military works. An assistant secretary of state who is a defeated candidate for a governorship with no refugee experience put in charge of dealing with the millions fleeing from Iraq. An undersecretary of state charged with resurrecting America’s “image” abroad whose preparation for the job was as a Texas TV reporter. Another put in charge of immigration and border security with no relevant experience whatever. A pro-consul in Iraq with no Middle East experience, much less languages, filling Green Zone jobs so long as the applicants vow to repeal Roe v. Wade. And, of course, that heck-of-a-job guy who ran FEMA. The list goes on and on.

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was a young, eager, and very low-level functionary in the Kennedy Administration (I was thrilled that someone higher up thought enough about me that they assigned me a secret spot in a secret tunnel in a secret mountain in North Carolina – in case the entire government had to relocate).

The Kennedy Administration certainly wasn’t perfect. The White House, for example, could have made good use of a few people with gray hairs and knowledge of how you talk to a senator. But the huge preponderance of the president’s 3,000-plus political appointees were people who had spent their entire adult lives preparing for the jobs they got. They really knew what they were doing. JKF’s best and brightest were neither ideologues nor political hacks, though there were a few of both. By and large, they were dedicated and they were competent.

I fear that history will look back on the time of George W. Bush not only as a time of American arrogance, American exceptionalism, and America’s abandonment of its most dearly treasured principles. I also fear that the judgment of history will serve to strengthen right-wing canards about government not being able to do anything right.

My hope is that the next administration will choose people who can get it right.