President Bush learned again this week about the dangers of naming a former governor to a presidential administration -- especially when the administration is one that brooks little dissent.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor, announced yesterday that she will resign her post next month. Meanwhile, another governor-turned-cabinet-secretary also seems to be pining for life as a state executive. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who was governor of Wisconsin before joining Bush's team in 2001, recently said, "I think it's time for me to take a hiatus from government and do something else for a while." And he told WisPolitics.com, "I will someday run for elected office again in Wisconsin."
When I interviewed Whitman in 2001 for The Hill, she told me that she didn't imagine running for public office again. ("The one thing I have decided is that from this office it would be very hard to run for another office," she said. "As governor, I at least could make some people happy with decisions. Here I very rarely make anybody happy. So this is not a great stepping stone.") But throughout the interview, she referred repeatedly to the lessons she'd learned as a governor. When I asked about her disagreement with President Bush on carbon-dioxide levels, she responded, "This is where having been a governor helped me, because it was never about me and I never took it personally because I knew what I'd expected of my cabinet. I also knew that once I made a decision, I expected the cabinet to fall in line. And sometimes I had very robust discussions from them and I overrode them and they still were there. "
Whitman's response was diplomatic, but there was no question that she was frustrated even then. It can be difficult playing second fiddle to someone else -- especially someone who so clearly disagrees with you and brushes aside your concerns, as Bush did -- when you're the one who's used to being in charge. Governors are leaders, after all, not followers. They're not used to having to take orders from anyone else. Unlike a senator, they're not just one of 100, or one of 435, like a representative. For someone who's used to being an executive, swallowing a company line that isn't what you believe just isn't worth it after awhile.
I'm not sure what Whitman will do next, but I'm sure that both she and President Bush are happy her tenure is ending. While he got political mileage out of nominating her -- after all, she wasn't just a moderate, she was a moderate woman! -- he no doubt was annoyed that she let her unhappiness about toeing the party line be publicly known. Bush never intended to make the environment a priority, or to take environmental concerns seriously, despite the media's happy pictures of Bush clearing the brush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. And Whitman was no doubt perturbed that she couldn't really say what she thought about the president's positions.
The Bush administration has shown time and again that it expects loyalty from its troops; cabinet officials are expected to toe the line and to do it happily. That's what made Whitman such an awkward fit. As Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, told The Associated Press, "Christie Whitman must feel like her own long national nightmare is over. No EPA administrator has ever been so consistently and publicly humiliated by the White House."
It's unclear who Bush will choose to nominate as Whitman's successor, but you can bet that it's someone who will carry out the White House agenda. That means it likely won't be a governor.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.