The Right Coast

March 31, 2004
West Wing Celebrities
By Gail Heriot

There was a time when working as a White House staff member was not quite so public a position as it has become in recent decades. Only Washington insiders knew much about even top White House staff members; they were shadowy figures who did their jobs and received little media attention. I like that way. If a presidential advisor has to think about how he’s going over with the media at the same time he thinking about how he’s going over with the President, he is having to think too much. Nobody is smart enough for that.

Today, however, a few staffers--like Karl Rove or Condoleezza Rice--might have a difficult time buying a cup of coffee in Djakarta without attracting attention. They are celebrities in their own right. The news media is so big and hungry for interviews that elected officials cannot possibly satisfy it. Top White House staff members must ride the Sunday morning news show circuit. It’s part of what’s expected of them.

An unpleasant side of celebrity is asserting itself this week. The Washington Post described the scene at Mr. Rove’s home in Northwest Washington on Sunday this way:

“Several hundred people stormed the small yard of President Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove yesterday afternoon, pounding on his windows, shoving signs at others and challenging Rove to talk to them about a bill that deals with educational opportunities for immigrants.

“Protesters poured out of one school bus after another, piercing an otherwise quiet, peaceful Sunday in Rove’s Palisades neighborhood ... chanting, ‘Karl, Karl, come on out! ...’”

It’s a shame. Karl Rove and his family shouldn’t have to put up with this harassment. That would be so regardless of the policies he has advocated at the White House. And, as the Wall Street Journal observed today, it is especially so in view of Bush’s (and Rove’s) strong pro-immigrant policies. If Karl Rove has not been sufficiently pro-immigrant to keep the crazies from pounding on his windows, then it can’t be done.

I wonder, however, if such ugly incidents aren’t difficult to avoid in the era of celebrity advisors. For good or ill, Karl Rove is a household name now. There are a lot of crazies out there, and crazies are attracted to celebrities the way that bugs are to light. They’re either going to pound on Karl Rove’s window or they’re going to pound on Ozzy Osbourne’s or Nicole Kidman’s and I guess this week it was Rove’s.

The Condoleezza Rice issue this week is related. Some people were asserting that it would be politically damaging for Bush to forbid Rice from testifying before the 9-11 Commission in view of her regular appearances on radio and television. And that sounds right to me. The average American is indeed likely to believe that if the President is not worried about Rice’s appearing on Face the Nation and Meet the Press, he should not be worried about her appearing before the Commission. He must therefore being trying to hide something–or so some people’s line of reasoning might go. Maybe that’s among the reasons that Bush relented and allowed the testimony.

If so, that’s a shame too. The argument that Presidential advisors should not be called to testify by Congress, the Courts or any other governmental body is by no means a frivolous one. It’s hard to give candid advice when you think that you might later have to explain that advice under oath to someone who was not there (and who may be unsympathetic to your position to the person you are advising). Rice testimony does indeed set an uncomfortable precedent. After yesterday’s announcement, all White House advisors with any sense will realize that they too may be called to testify before some politically-charged commission some day. The question is whether the existence of celebrity advisors makes all this inevitable, and if so, whether that existence needs some re-thinking.