Molly Ivins

How to Pick a President


T his is the Tommy Corcoran column. Tommy the Cork, so dubbed by FDR, was a Washington wise man. His various biographers called him the ultimate insider, the super lawyer, and the master fixer. He came to Washington in 1926 to clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and became a fixture, an almost institutional source of wisdom about American politics, before his death in 1981.

The Cork had a theory about how to choose a president. He always said it didn’t matter who was running, that it was unnecessary to pay any attention to them. What matters, he said, is the approximately 1,500 people the president brings to Washington with him, his appointments to the positions where people actually run things. The question to consider is which 1,500 people we get.

So here are a few suggestions:

At the EPA, you do not want people who think it’s a good idea to allow more arsenic in the water. When someone, anyone, proposes allowing more arsenic in the water, what you want is people at the EPA who promptly say: “No. Not a good idea.†There are some lawyers, and then there are other lawyers. You do not want lawyers at the Justice Department (or the White House or the Defense Department) who, when asked to prepare a legal brief defending torture, do so. You want lawyers at Justice (and the White House and the Defense Department) who say: “No. Torture is not a good idea. Trying to wiggle out from under our laws, international treaties, and civilized norms is not a good idea.†You especially don’t want lawyers who defend torture promoted to the federal bench. It is not a good idea to have the CIA using the same “interrogation technique†that was so favored by the Gestapo. This is counterproductive as well as wrong. You don’t want folks in charge of the IRS who think it is more important to audit poor people than rich people. That is dumb. You do not want people in charge of foreign policy who are fools enough to believe in Ahmad Chalabi, a convicted con man and, it turns out, probably a spy for Iran. Those people should be fired. Especially when some of them are now also being investigated for giving classified information to Israel. Having your Department of Homeland Security turn out to be a public disgrace indicates that you have either not put the right people in charge or they are not getting enough support. When “Hurricane Hits Florida Yet Again†becomes a standing headline right up there with “Canadian Trade Talks Continue,†you may want to put people in charge of policy who recognize that global warming not only exists but threatens us all. If the people a president puts in charge of foreign policy are all from the same small circle of rigid ideologues, what happens is that they end up listening only to themselves, and that way lies disaster. When the people who are running the Food and Drug Administration do so to benefit the big processors and the big drug companies, people get hurt, and some of them die. When the people in charge of prosecuting terrorists in this country screw up case after case, those people should be replaced. When the country endures a hideous terrorist attack, is it actually useful for the White House to oppose the commission assigned to find out how it happened? To first deny it adequate funding, then refuse to provide it with critical documents, then oppose an extension of its deadline, then refuse to allow the commission access to prisoners who played key roles in the attack, then try to stop Condoleezza Rice from testifying, then refuse to have the president testify under oath? When the people in charge make a decision to start an unprovoked war because of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and nonexistent ties to the terrorists who have attacked us, you may conclude that these people are lying, or dumb, or just not helpful. When a new administration comes into office with a huge budget surplus and then blows it all on tax cuts that benefit the very rich, should it be retained? If an economic team leads the country to a record $422 billion deficit this year and $2.3 trillion in the next decade, do you really want a team in charge that announces it wants more tax cuts that will double the total deficit to $4.6 trillion by the end of the decade? Do these people have a sense of responsibility? If the economic team produces a net loss of 1.1 million jobs after four years, should its contract be renewed? Forget Bush—the people around him are a complete disaster. John Kerry will basically re-hire the Clinton team and presumably remain faithful to his wife. Of course, Clinton didn’t get Osama bin Laden, either. But his people worked harder at it.

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her new book with Lou Dubose is Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America (Random House).