Last Train to Texas
Nearly eight years ago, President-elect George W. Bush led an exodus of Texans to help fill out the ranks of his administration in Washington. There was Bush’s so-called “iron triangle” of advisers: Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, and Joe Allbaugh, known for their tight control over the presidential campaign; longtime friends and associates like Don Evans and Margaret Spellings; and a cadre of other loyalists, of whom Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Miers, Dan Bartlett, and Scott McClellan are a few of the most famous (or in some cases, infamous).
As the Bush administration enters its final days, more and more of the original Texas troops have been popping up back in the Lone Star State. While they haven’t been met with jeers and rotten vegetables, no one’s been rolling out the red carpet, either.
Many of Bush’s operatives face tough times as they ponder their future employment possibilities. Thanks in no small part to Bush’s doings over the past two terms, Washington has become increasingly inhospitable for the Bush team while even the once-friendly confines of Texas pose new challenges for those who head home. For every Karen Hughes who lands a highly paid consulting gig, there’s an Alberto Gonzales, who seems condemned to wander the Earth in search of gainful employment.
There’s an old saying in Washington that once you get to the nation’s capital, you “never go back to Pocatello.” The intoxicating brew of power and glory that comes from national politics is too great to give up once it’s been tasted. After a presidential administration closes up shop, it’s not unusual for many of its people to stick around D.C., where they can capitalize on their experience with the ins and outs of Beltway politics. If the next administration is friendly, chances are there will be jobs aplenty. And many aspire to the role of political pundit (think David Gergen or George Stephanopoulos) or Washington wise man (Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Ed Meese and George H.W. Bush’s consigliere James Baker are prime examples).
But now is not a happy time for Republicans on the national scene. Democrats appear likely to expand their majorities in Congress and perhaps win back the presidency, effectively sending thousands of Republicans into the ranks of the unemployed. In years past, think tanks and lobbying firms have served as safe havens for those exiled from power, but even those jobs are scarce these days-thanks, in part, to former Texas Congressman and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Following the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, DeLay instituted his “K Street Project,” which cut off access in the halls of Congress to lobbying firms unless they donated to conservative causes and hired Republicans to top jobs. The move led to a great purge of Democrats from the lobbying ranks. That served Republicans well in the short run. But like other elements of DeLay’s grand “permanent Republican majority” plan, this one has come back to haunt his party. In the past two years, many firms have scrambled to improve their Democratic bona fides, and adding former Republican staffers to the payroll is the last thing on their minds.
“I don’t think a lot of people are being hired because they had a Bush connection,” said Matthew Dowd, former chief strategist for Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and founding partner of the Austin-based consulting firm ViaNovo. “The House is Democratic, the Senate is Democratic, and the White House is likely to be Democratic. That’s not going to be helpful for a Republican who wants to go into the lobby business.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that more than a few members of Bush’s Texas contingent have been making their ways back home (a list that will eventually include the president himself; Laura Bush is reportedly house-hunting in the Dallas suburbs). Texas, after all, is still Republican country. However, like the rest of the nation, Texans aren’t particularly high on Bush right now-and that includes even those in the state’s Republican Party.
“My sense of conservatives here in the Republican Party is they’re about as sick of Bush as anybody else, but they’re not going to make a public spectacle of it,” said William Murchison, a political columnist and research fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation-a Lewisville, Tx.-based libertarian think tank founded by former Congressman Dick Armey. (Full disclosure: Murchison is syndicated by the same company that employs me.) “They’re kind of closing ranks because they feel, ‘we sent him up there, and we’re responsible,’ but I think conservatives down here are ready to be shut of the whole Bush phenomenon. They wish he’d go away.”
The problem for Bush refugees is that the person holding the levers of power in Texas is Gov. Rick Perry-and Perry and Bush have had a rocky relationship dating back to Bush’s time as governor. The friction began when Rove was plotting Bush’s 1998 re-election campaign to expand his bipartisan appeal as a prelude to a presidential bid, making moves that often came at the expense of Perry, who was in a tight race for lieutenant governor.
“Perry is now Texas Republican politics,” said Wayne Slater, a Dallas Morning News reporter and author of two books on Karl Rove. “He has dominated the landscape of Texas politics for almost a decade. And the Perry people who really own a large part of the Republican infrastructure in Texas are not on particularly good terms with many of the Bush folks, and they will not get the favorable treatment you might expect in Texas.”
In fact, only one administration veteran has managed to land a high-profile state gig so far. Albert Hawkins, Bush’s former Cabinet secretary, has served as the Texas Commissioner for Health and Human Services since 2003. Other than that, the state cupboard is stocked with Perry people, and there’s no indication that they’re going to make room for new arrivals.
“I don’t doubt that there will be some [Bush] people who will come back and involve themselves in state affairs,” said Will Lutz, managing editor of The Lone Star Report. “There are always people who bounce around between the two of them. But is this going to be some sort of phenomenon? I’m sort of skeptical. When Bush took all of those people to Washington, Perry and [Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst . . . had to fill those positions with other people. Hiring is a supply and demand thing.”
Murchison notes that many of the folks who went to Washington were more loyal to Bush than to the Texas Republican Party or the conservative movement, so many in the state party don’t feel a sense of obligation to Bush veterans.
“They were much more Bush people than conservatives,” said Royal Masset, a GOP political consultant and former political director for the Texas Republican Party. “They were tough babies; they were good, competent people, but they were more your solid administrative types rather than ideological people.”
Even if Perry went out of his way to welcome Bush refugees, there’s only so much the state can offer. For someone with national experience, the Texas job pool shrinks considerably. While lower-level jobs may be attractive to some, they will hardly stir the blood of those with experience on the national landscape. Once you’ve been in the White House, the statehouse looks awfully small and provincial.
Finally, while the Republican Party still dominates the state, there are signs that its grip may be slipping. “Demographics is destiny,” said the 19th-century French sociologist Auguste Comte, and in Texas’ case that means the state is beginning to tilt back to the center. Many analysts believe that an increasing Latino vote, combined with disillusionment with the Republican Party in white suburbs, will lead to a Democratic resurgence.
The GOP margin in the statehouse is slowly eroding (Democrats hope to recapture the Texas House this year), Sen. John Cornyn continues to poll below 50 percent in his bid for re-election, and Democrats will likely win a good number of down-ballot races this fall. If trends continue, there could be more Republicans fighting over fewer seats in the halls of power. While GOP connections are still a valuable commodity in Texas lobbying shops, think tanks, and law firms, if Texas becomes more Democratic, the employment trends that have made Washington inhospitable for Republicans may be mirrored to a lesser extent in Austin.
“I think we’re all kind of cynical to the point that the new generation isn’t doing a good job,” Masset said. “They’re flubbing things up. This is going to be a very bad year for Republicans.”
What’s a dedicated Bush loyalist to do? There are a number of Texans who appear to be committed bitter-enders. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings-who prior to her Cabinet post spearheaded development of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act as assistant to the president for domestic policy-has said she plans to stick around until January 2009 and perhaps beyond. Also likely to finish out the term with Bush are Assistant Secretary of Commerce Israel Hernandez-better known as the personal secretary responsible for supplying Bush with Altoids when he was governor-and National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who worked in the State Department’s press office and as press secretary for Laura Bush and the Department of Homeland Security.
Of the already departed, some have managed to escape the Beltway with their reputations intact. Others clearly have been wounded.
“To be a part of the Bush years in Washington is to have been a part of a tarnished experience,” Slater said. “And so when you come back, is your value less than it otherwise would have been?”
For Karl Rove, the transition from Washington to his home in Ingram, Texas, (with more than a few trips to his D.C. house and his million-dollar estate in a Florida beach community) has been an easy one. Shortly after his resignation announcement, he landed jobs as a pundit for Fox News and a regular columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. There’s a book in the offing. He’s also been showing up at fundraisers for Texas Republicans, an indication that he retains much of his luster as a political magician.
“Rove is staying active,” Masset said. “Karl is such a complete political animal, it is almost inconceivable for me to visualize life for Karl without politics until the guy dies.”
The Bush staffers may not have been able to govern effectively, but they knew how to craft messages and run campaigns. A few Bush advisers have taken those skills to the corporate world. Last month, Hughes was named global vice chairwoman of Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm run by Democratic campaign strategist Mark Penn. Her new clients will presumably expect a greater level of success than Hughes achieved in her previous job, “commuting” to Washington and abroad from her home in Austin as the State Department’s undersecretary of public diplomacy in charge of improving America’s image in the Middle East.
Former Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett, who returned to Texas last year, took a job at Public Strategies Inc., the Austin-based PR firm that boasts it can “translate winning campaigns for political candidates into winning campaigns for corporations.” The company is home to several former Bush officials, including the president’s media adviser, Mark McKinnon.
“Public Strategies is the closest thing to a safe landing spot back home for at least some of the refugees of the Bush years,” Slater said. “But they can’t be that partisan, and they can’t absorb everybody.”
Joe Allbaugh, who served as Bush’s first director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, left government work when FEMA was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Since then, he’s founded New Bridge Strategies, which helps companies with business interests in the Middle East, and he’s started a company Diligence-Iraq, that handles civilian security.
Allbaugh and his wife also run The Allbaugh Co., a consulting-lobbying firm that pulls in millions by helping companies ink homeland-security and disaster-relief contracts. And in proof that irony is not dead, his company has made a tidy profit securing federal funds for businesses looking to clean up the mess created by his handpicked successor at FEMA following Hurricane Katrina. One Allbaugh client, the Shaw Group, won two no-bid, $100 million construction jobs from FEMA and the Army Corp of Engineers. Another Allbaugh client, KBR Inc., received $29.8 million to rebuild damaged Navy bases in the Gulf.
As for Harriet Miers, a contempt of Congress citation last year for refusing to testify about the controversial firing of U.S. attorneys hasn’t stopped her from finding employment following her resignation as White House counsel. The woman who was floated as a possible Supreme Court nominee and then unceremoniously shot down by conservatives and liberals alike is back with her longtime employer, the Dallas law firm Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell, where she heads up the litigation and public policy sections.
Another option for administration veterans is to sink their teeth deep into the feeding hand. Scott McClellan, Bush’s former press secretary, has followed that course with reckless abandon, using his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, to accuse his former employers of repeated lies, obfuscations, and general skullduggery. If that weren’t enough to torpedo his political prospects in Texas, there’s also the little issue of his leaving the White House to join his mom Carol Keeton Strayhorn’s gubernatorial campaign to unseat Perry two years ago. (Scott’s brother Mark, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, still works in Washington as a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.)
McClellan resigned from his job as a senior vice president at the tech procurement firm Hardhatbid Inc. before starting his book tour. He currently sits on the international advisory council for the communications firm APCO Worldwide Inc. and has told interviewers that he’s pondering academia or political punditry.
Dowd, who started his career on the staff of Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen but moved into Republican circles when Bush ran for governor, was one of the first close Bush aides from Texas to go public about his disillusionment with the president in a series of public statements and interviews last year.
Then there is the not-so-sad tale of Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general who has yet to land a full-time job. Since his forced retirement amid increasingly hostile congressional inquiries into civil rights violations and partisan politicking at the Justice Department, he’s been busying himself giving high school graduation speeches (no, seriously-at a private school in the U.S. Virgin Islands) and dodging protests on the rubber-chicken speaking circuit.
At the University of Florida, he was relentlessly heckled by the crowd, and his speech was interrupted by several students taking the stage dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees. He’s also had a part-time job helping in the settlement of a Texas patent case and was last seen penning an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, where he argued that the key to winning Hispanic support in the coming presidential contest is to understand the community’s “desire to succeed.”
There is one place, however, where even someone with Gonzales’ political baggage might be welcomed-the Bush library and its associated think tank. Rove is said to be leading the charge on planning the content of the library and its efforts to burnish the Bush legacy, going so far as to meet with administrators of other research libraries for ideas. Don Evans is spearheading fundraising for the project, and Hughes and Bartlett are involved.
For Bush and h
s former aides, the library is essent
al to their efforts to spin the past eight years in the best light possible. Any success they have will only improve their future prospects, dimming the potential of their White House days being seen as a blemish on their resumÃ©s.
When previous administrations packed up shop and headed out of town, a few former aides tried to parlay their newfound fame on the national stage into successful bids for elective office. John Connally used a stint as secretary of the Navy under President Kennedy as a springboard to the Texas governorship in 1962. Former Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno made an ill-fated run for the Florida governorship in 2002. Rahm Emanuel went from Clinton White House staffer to a seat in Congress from Chicago and has risen to fourth-ranking member of the Democratic leadership.
If any of Bush’s Texas crowd wants to make a go of a political career, however, they’re going to have to do it in spite of their ties to the administration and not because of them, at least in near term.
“Bush is an anchor,” Dowd said. “I don’t think you can take your experience in Washington working with the Bush administration and emphasize that on your resumÃ©.”
Dowd says he considered a Texas political career as recently as 2004. But given his break from Bush, he says he’s not even sure what party’s nomination he’d run for-if he did run, explaining his Bush connection would be something he’d have to “figure out.” For now, he says he’s happy spending time with family on his ranch in Wimberley.
Meanwhile, a gubernatorial contest in 2010 looms, and while much of the talk has been about whether Perry runs for re-election or Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison enters the race, a couple of Bush Cabinet secretaries also have been the subject of persistent rumors in connection with the top job in the state or perhaps a Senate vacancy-Don Evans and Margaret Spellings.
Spellings said she’s sticking around Washington until her daughter graduates from high school in 2010, but she recently told Texas Monthly’s Evan Smith that she eventually wants to get back to her “beloved home state.”
“Spellings I’ve never seen as a political person,” said Masset, who worked with her at the Republican State Party offices. “She was a triple-A administrator, but she hasn’t run a campaign or done anything like that.”
Talk of an Evans try for statewide office is more serious. He returned to Texas in early 2005 and is currently raking in megadollars as chairman of Energy Future Holdings Corp., the company formed following the private equity buyout of energy giant TXU. Evans was named to his position before the sale in an effort to lend credibility to the deal and was visible in his support, sitting behind buyout deal maker Henry Kravis of KKR & Co. during Texas House committee hearings. (Evans declined an interview request for this article.)
“There are all kinds of rumors about whether or not Don Evans is going to run for something,” said Lutz of The Lone Star Report. “If he chose to run, he certainly knows enough people here and has maintained enough ties to this state that people would need to take him seriously.”
No matter how the 2010 Republican primary ends up, the resulting fracas could set off a round of musical chairs that shakes things up in the state GOP, creating openings for former Bush officials to re-enter the political arena if the climate is right. There’s always the chance that no matter how dismal the outlook today, state Republicans could view Bush in a better light by then.
“It is indeed possible, at least in Texas, that associating oneself with George W. Bush in 2010 won’t be a bad thing,” Murchison said. “You’ve got to consider the cycle in politics, the ups and downs. They’re sick of the whole thing right now, but he might look pretty good in 2010.”
Anthony Zurcher is a freelance writer and editor with Creators Syndicate who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.