I’ve generally avoided overtly political commentary, preferring instead to discuss more fundamental philosophical issues, but I want to comment briefly on today’s news that Scott McClellan is resigning and Karl Rove is “[giving] up his portfolio as senior policy coordinator to concentrate more on politics and November’s midterm Congressional elections.” I’m less interested in the latter than I am in the former, given that even when Rove was supervising policy, it was almost exclusively a matter of political strategy (as opposed to a more honest, less self-interested motivation behind policy implementation), so I don’t think much is really changing there. Still, I suppose the point that I want to make probably holds true in both cases.
Point being this: people and ideas are not interchangeable. In a situation like the recent so-called shakeup of White House staff, the suggestion, from a political/PR standpoint, is that by removing a prominent figure, the administration is somehow taking responsibility for and/or remedying the policies and concepts with which that person has been involved. In this case, the figure is pretty much just a mouthpiece, making the contrast between person and principle all the more clear. Taking responsibility for bad leadership or insufficient performance of a given job is one thing, but it shouldn’t be confused with changes in ideology, policy, or principle, especially given how exceedingly rare it seems to be for a policy idea to be conceived of and authored by just one person (and certainly not by press secretaries). The man or woman in a position of governmental authority often comes to symbolize in part the actions and words of the government as a whole, such that people see a “shakeup” in personnel as a real change, by the logic that the person carries with him or her the ideas of the administration, or at least some subset of those ideas. In most cases, though, these shakeups are merely a matter of finding scapegoats, dumping them to the curb, and pretending that more substantive things have changed so as to maintain an illusion of progress where there usually is none. I don’t doubt that there is at least some difference in leadership styles between Andy Card and Josh Bolten, but that transition is being very deliberately made out to be a change in more than personnel. If there are genuine differences in ideology between the old staff and the new, then fine, that’s something, but I have seen no particular evidence to suggest that there is—and there has been a near-constant (and unabashedly manipulative) attempt to trumpet these changes as a real shift in direction.
One of the many noteworthy (if not entirely original) themes tossed around in V for Vendetta is that of the symbolic relationship between man and idea. Vendetta explores the traditional wisdom that the idea is greater than the man, more powerful, far more difficult to extinguish—indeed, expressions of this idea bookend the film. The relationship, both within the film’s reality and in our reality, is more complicated than that, however; the idea is conceived, voiced, expressed, and enacted by the man, or by other men (I assume I need not clarify every use of ‘man’ by saying I’m using it gender-neutrally). I don’t mean to suggest that Scott McClellan or Andy Card are trivial, or that they don’t bear any relation to the ideas behind the administration, but typically our government is organized in such a way that with very few exceptions, the man is a slave to the idea. A very small minority within the administration crafts policy, and outside of this minority, everyone is subordinate to the enacting of the decided-on policy. This situation is not unique to the Bush administration, but they have certainly elevated it to an art form with their increasingly insular decision-making process and their unceasing refusal to listen to fact or opinion not already within the scope of the decided-on policies.
A true change of course would necessitate a change not only in the policies that have been so resolutely decided upon, but also in the decision-making process as a whole. A changed Bush administration would in theory be one that listened to its critics rather than dismissing them out of hand, one that embraced policy debate instead of claiming an unsubstantiated point of view as definitive truth, one that acknowledged the significance of objective reality rather than ignoring it. Until/unless that happens, we ought not accept the assertions that a staff shakeup is interchangeable with (or a satisfactory substitute for) a policy/idea shakeup. The symbology of leadership is not ironclad; we ought not confuse the symbol and the symbolized, the man and the principle. Eliminating the former does not eliminate the latter—rarely are ideas, even bad ones, so easily extinguished.
Edit: Alonzo Fyfe expresses a similar point (emphasis mine):
We have already been told that this shakeup does not include Rumsfeld. Instead, today, we hear that Press Secretary Scott McClellan is stepping down. This has all of the sense of a speaker, proposing poorly considered ideas based on fantasy and wishful thinking can make those ideas sound better if they switch to a different microphone. They have not yet recognized that the problem is with the message, not with the quality of the equipment used to tell it.