The Washington Times

An often heard lament in Washington is that loyalty is a one-way street. Presidents expect it, but they do not extend it in return. Come a whiff of trouble, and even someone who has served the president well and faithfully for years will find herself cut dead, or perhaps twisting slowly in the wind.

The story of Linda Chavez’s bid to become labor secretary is a sad one. I have known Ms. Chavez for years. I think she has superb intellectual gifts, as well as the toughness that is required to play for keeps in Washington. She would have made a fine secretary of labor. Her consolation for her troubles, such as it is, is that they offer an illustration of why it’s not such a bad thing in Washington that when it comes to the president, loyalty is a one-way street.

When an official (or a nominee) gets in trouble in Washington, it usually ends up a tragedy in three acts.

Act I, scene 1: The palace. The president announces the appointment. The thrill of the court.

Act 1, scene 2: The nominee’s home. The crippling revelation. The wild mood swings as the nominee considers how bad the damage is.

Act II, scene 1: Before the cameras. The nominee mounts her defense.

Act II, scene 2: The palace. The president’s spokesman speaks, issuing an expression of support that somehow rings a bit hollow.

Act II, scene 3: The mob. The next day. Talk of the contradictory elements in the defense of the nominee.

Act II, scene 4: The nominee’s castle: The palace has let out word that the president learned only recently of the events underlying the revelation. And the expression of support is now conditional: If things aren’t as they seem .

. .

Act III, scene 1: The mob. The next day. It seems things may not have been as they seemed.

Act III, scene 2: The nominee’s castle: The awful realization that the situation is irreparable and untenable.

Act III, scene 3: Before the cameras. The nominee withdraws. Exeunt omnes. Curtain.

What’s going on here is what goes on in Washington every day. The first rule of politics is really quite simple: Protect the president.

The Clinton White House had a certain genius for organizing its operation to protect the president. To pick only one example, the president’s principal spokesman simply wouldn’t answer questions about scandals. They were referred instead to a scandal spokesman in the White House counsel’s office. The press learned not to bother asking the regular spokesman about scandals. This allowed the president’s official communications to be unburdened by nettlesome distractions.

But the concern to protect the president is hardly unique to Mr. Clinton. After all, consider the alternative: A nominee tenaciously hanging on, forcing the president (or president-elect) to sustain ongoing political damage or act personally to pull the plug.

That doesn’t work. Whenever the president is doing something, that is by definition the most important thing the administration is doing. Thus we had the prospect of the fight over a second-tier Cabinet slot elevated into the single most important thing on George W. Bush’s to-do list.

That was plainly not his top priority. And in the end, setting those priorities is solely the president’s prerogative. Certainly none of his officials has the right to impose them on him. In the case of Linda Chavez, there was only one thing to do. She had no claim on Mr. Bush. His was the claim on her.

The odd thing about these tragedies in three acts is that the true protagonist is not the official or nominee in question. It’s the president, who appears only briefly in Act I, scene 1, and then moves on to more important things.