It may never be a good time to be a chief of staff in the federal government. The very title has a ring of Gilbert and Sullivan pomposity, especially in the more obscure realms of the bureaucracy. Reading an account of some hapless chief's latest congressional testimony, you can almost hear him in line in front of you at the dry cleaner's, demanding faster service: "Why, don't you know who I am? I'm the chief of staff to the secretary of education!" But, in the Bush administration, of course, the title also reflects everything the administration holds dear. It is a process-oriented position, exempt from congressional scrutiny, charged with enforcing loyalty and, more often than not, privy to the secret meetings and back-room dealings that have a way of metastasizing into scandal.
No surprise, then, that the disaster-plagued second Bush term has been especially lousy for its chiefs of staff. One of them, onetime General Services Administration Chief of Staff David Safavian, has been sentenced to 18 months on corruption charges. Another, Vice Presidential Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, faces more than that for lying to the feds. The title has figured tangentially in GOP black eyes from the congressional page scandal (one representative's chief of staff was accused of covering up Mark Foley's dirty e-mails) to Interior Department official J. Steven Griles's conviction for lying to Congress (among the revelations that surfaced was Griles's romance with ... the department's deputy chief of staff). Unsurprisingly, the chief chief of staff, the White House's Andy Card, got the gate a year ago.
Each of these figures represented some strain of the Bush administration's identity. There was the ideological self-certainty of Libby, a chief proponent of the Iraq war and all of the transformations that would purportedly follow. There was the cronyism and corruption of Safavian, who was helped into government by his pal Jack Abramoff. And there was the slavish loyalty of Card, who did everything from fetch sandwiches for the president to gently interrupt his children's-book reading to inform him of the September 11 attacks.
This Thursday, though, viewers tuning in to Senate hearings looking into the administration's latest scandal, the U.S. attorney firings, will get a peek at a chief of staff who just might represent the perfect distillation of Bush's much-maligned administration: D. Kyle Sampson, who, until two weeks ago, held the title for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Though Sampson himself has kept a low profile since he quit amid the rising waters at the Justice Department, his old press clips and the massive volume of e-mails released to congressional investigators depict a magical combination of piousness and arrogance, bumbling and dogmatism, hackery and, now, deep trouble. He's central casting's version of a loyal Bushie. Consider:
Religiosity. A Utah-born Mormon, Sampson first came over to the Justice Department as a top aide to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. "Some people think you should never talk about religion and politics, and, like me, General Ashcroft thinks those are the two most interesting things to talk about," he told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2005. "So, that's what we talk about--doctrinal things. What's your belief in God?" Upon Sampson's appointment to the Bush administration, the Mormon Church's website reported: "Sampson said President Bush is a committed follower of Christ, which makes him a great boss."
Ideology. Among the reasons Sampson was apparently angry with some of the ousted U.S. attorneys was a special obsession of the Christian right: prosecuting pornographers. Brent Ward, head of the Justice Department's obscenity task force and a veteran of the smut wars of the Ed Meese era, e-mailed Sampson in a rage about the failure by two of U.S. attorneys, Las Vegas's Dan Bogden and Phoenix's Paul Charlton, to prosecute obscenity cases he had brought them. When the Reagan administration wrangled with pornographers in the 1980s, it failed to win many cases but drove several firms out of business by dragging out the legal proceedings. "What do you suggest I do?" Ward asked Sampson. "If you want to act on what I give you, I will be glad to provide a little more context for each of the two situations." Both men wound up getting fired.
Cronyism. Sampson first landed in the Bush administration with the help of a friend from his days at the University of Chicago law school. The friend's name: Elizabeth Cheney. Yes, that Cheney. And, once ensconced in a position that influenced hiring, he gave as good as he got. In a profile of Sampson in the alumni magazine of Brigham Young University, where Sampson got his undergraduate degree in 1993, White House staffer Taylor M. Oldroyd said: "Kyle has played a key role in many of the administration's personnel decisions and is the reason so many BYU alumni, including myself, have positions in the Bush administration." Last year, Sampson lined up support from Gonzales in his effort to succeed the U.S. attorney for Utah, who quit to become a federal magistrate. He ultimately lost out to a candidate favored by the state's senior senator, Orrin Hatch. And, even on his way out the door, he was grasping for more dubious vines: National Public Radio reported on March 16 that, before the scandal pushed Sampson from office, Gonzales had planned to transfer him to the Department's environmental division.
Loyalty. Beyond just touting the saintly credentials of Bush and "General Ashcroft," Sampson played enforcer when the plans to whack U.S. attorneys were hatched. "As an operational matter we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current U.S. Attorneys--the underperforming ones," he wrote in response to a 2005 query that originated with Karl Rove. "The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc." Last fall, as a final hit list was compiled, he e-mailed that he factored in "loyalty to the president and the attorney general." And, of course, there's still that pesky little question about whether they were fired for investigating Republicans.
Arrogance. When one of the deposed attorneys, Charlton, asked to make a personal case for himself to Gonzales, the thirty-something Sampson, who never worked as a prosecutor, reported it thusly: "In the 'you won't believe this category,' Paul Charlton would like a few minutes of the AG's time." In other e-mails, he asked whether another fired attorney, Carol Lam, had been "taken to the woodshed" yet by Gonzales's deputy.
Bumbling. Sampson initially sought to protect his boss by using an excuse that, given the administration's track record, would seem eminently believable--a giant screw-up. He said he had failed to brief Gonzales on the full extent of the deliberations. Unfortunately, this appears to have violated the first rule of excuse making: It has been contradicted by evidence that strongly suggests Gonzales was in the know.
When it comes time for a movie version of the Bush administration, the Libby story will play as a high-stakes intellectual thriller (the protagonist writes novels set in Japan!) and the Safavian crimes will be part of a sweeping underworld saga (the intrigues of the house of Abramoff). Sampson, meanwhile, could most easily be commemorated via rather lower-brow fare. The e-mails depict the government as a Police Academy sequel or substandard frat-house comedy, with Sampson as one of the student council types sucking up to the college dean. Is Steve Guttenberg free these days?
Given the Bushies' image of themselves as grand actors on the stage of history, this must be particularly painful. But it's also classically Bushie. And thus a perfect realization for Sampson to hammer home.
By Michael Currie Schaffer