Tod Lindberg

The grim face of partisanship

Posted by Tod Lindberg on July 20th, 2001

The Washington Times

Looking back, I see I missed something in the 2000 election aftermath that is worth a few words, not so much for further illumination of the battle for Florida, but as an illustration of a phenomenon that is common in Washington: partisan politics masquerading as something higher. Consider the timely arrival in Florida of two former secretaries of state, Democrat Warren Christopher and Republican James A. Baker III, to serve as spokesmen for the post-election efforts of the candidates of their respective parties.

Now, the position of secretary of state is the premier Cabinet office. In most circumstances, the secretary of state is the second most important official in the administration, following only the president. The secretary of state is also, after the president, the face the United States presents to the world. This became especially consequential starting near the end of the 19th century, when the United States emerged as a great power.

The secretary of state inherits with the office the legacy of the foreign policies of the United States, of which the secretary is first of all custodian, the embodiment of continuity of U.S. interests and areas of concern. The secretary will also inevitably shape those policies, whether through deliberate action, accident, or even inaction, leaving a legacy in turn. The stakes, needless to say, are quite high: war and peace, increasing or diminishing American influence, etc.

All of this is deadly serious, and is indeed higher than partisan politics. A person serving as secretary of state is accorded respect across party lines (although he is hardly immune to criticism from the partisan opposition). A secretary of state acting as secretary of state, and a former secretary in his or her capacity as former secretary of state, possesses, in a word, authority.

I think that’s what brought Warren Christopher (he was first to arrive) to Florida. In his capacity as former secretary of state, he would be a serious and sober spokesman for the vice president’s efforts. He would bring authority.

Except that this was exactly wrong, as quickly became apparent. The authority that belongs to someone as former secretary of state does not inhere in the person, but in the relation between the person and his former office. The authority is therefore not something the person conveys willy-nilly to any endeavor in which he engages. Were Henry Kissinger to walk naked through the streets of New York, he would bring no special dignity to that activity – on the contrary. The story would be more noteworthy than in the case of any given nudist precisely because of the juxtaposition of the former high station with the current low activity.

Mr. Christopher arrived as point man for a highly partisan political operation. The operation gained no authority by his presence. He was no disinterested third party lending the weight of his esteem to a just cause for the principle of the thing. In arriving in Florida, he became a party. Or rather he joined the party – his party, the Democratic Party. There is nothing wrong with that, but neither is there anything loftier to it.

The arrival of Mr. Baker hard on Mr. Christopher’s heels drove the point home. In the first place, it had a certain “So’s your mother” quality to it: You’ve got your secretary, we’ve got our secretary, and our secretary can whip your secretary. Second, I don’t think anyone was ever tempted to grant Mr. Baker any extra personal authority in his actions on behalf of George W. Bush because of Mr. Baker’s years in Foggy Bottom. Nor did he seem to ask for it: Mr. Baker came to Florida in order to be the lead partisan.

On reflection, I think the difference between Mr. Baker and Mr. Christopher is that Mr. Baker relished that role and Mr. Christopher did not. This in turn probably accounts for the receding presence of Mr. Christopher as time went by. There was, in effect, no way to be former secretary of state, with the authority that implies, and lead partisan too.

This is politically healthy. There has long been an opposing tendency, namely, to suppose that authority does inhere in the person. This leads to the abuse of authority. It’s a way for partisans to deny their own partisanship, or at least fail to acknowledge it – to act out of partisan motives while pretending to higher motives only. They need to be called on it, and increasingly, I think, they are.