Washington is suddenly hung up on cronyism. According to a quick Lexis-Nexis search, roughly 1,000 stories have mentioned "cronyism" and "Bush" in the last two months alone. It was Michael Brown's putatively dismal performance at FEMA that got the anti-crony buzz going and Bush's selection of Harriet Miers that sent it into the stratosphere.
But President Bush has been setting the tinder for quite some time by so successfully keeping a tight inner circle of loyalists in the White House. When he was re-elected, Bush made the strategically wise decision of dispatching these loyalists to run important cabinet agencies, in particular the Department of Justice and the State Department. This was a smart move because in presidents' second terms, cabinet secretaries tend to start indulging their own political agendas rather than carry water for the lame duck. Putting friends at the controls, however, has kept these ships in the Bush armada.
Continuing my string of mixed metaphors, Miers kicked the issue into overdrive because Bush placed so much emphasis on her status as a "loyal friend" - perhaps because there wasn't much else to go on. So now Miers is on a collision course with the Senate Judiciary Committee, and we will see if she is in fact the crash test dummy of the Bush White House.
I think the Miers pick was ill-conceived, but I'm remaining agnostic on her confirmation until those hearings. But I do think someone needs to say something in defense of cronyism.
It's a word and concept much abused in recent months. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank quoted me as saying Harriet Miers fits the dictionary definition of "crony," as if it was a stinging rebuke of the White House. In reality, it was merely a factual statement. According to the dictionary, a crony is a longtime close friend or companion. Historically it didn't have a negative connotation. It derives from the Greek chronos (time) and simply means someone you've known for a long while. The Oxford English Dictionary cites as the word's first appearance an entry in Samuel Pepys' diary in 1665: "Jack Cole, my old school-fellow . who was a great chrony of mine." In America, the term has become politically negative, meaning favoritism for your buddies.
Thus it's something of a departure for liberals to become particularly vexed over cronyism, given that cronyism is central to traditional Democratic machine politics. Recall Bill Clinton appointed his childhood friend Thomas "Mack" McLarty as his chief of staff and Bruce Lindsey as his counsel, and he criminally attacked the White House travel office so he could get his cronies in there.
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