After Karen Hughes stepped down as a counselor to the president in 2002, White House chief of staff Andy Card, in a rare moment of candor, told Esquire: “She’s leaving when the president has one of the highest approval ratings on record. From here, it can only go down. And when it does, you know who they’re going to blame.”
Then, Card tapped his chest and added, “They’re gonna blame Andy Card!”
As it happens, Card was wrong.
No one blamed him. Few even remembered that he was, technically, in charge of managing the Bush White House.
Card will forever be remembered for one thing: Wandering into camera range and then whispering into the ear of President Bush that terrorists had attacked the United States — and for not, apparently, imparting the information with sufficient force to get the most powerful man in the world to respond with anything more than a quizzical look for the seven agonizing minutes portrayed in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11.
As Bill Maher has suggested: “Watergate was outrageous but it still did not carry the possibility of utter devastation, like a President’s freezing at the very moment we needed his immediate focus on an attack on the United States.”
Well, Card was the senior aide, who had been placed at the president’s side by none other than Father-in-Chief George Herbert Walker Bush, in order to make sure that George II did not freeze at moments such as this. And he failed, miserably. Not only did Bush fail to respond to the whispered news that “America’s under attack” for the seven minutes seen on screen, he then spent another twenty minutes posing for “photo-op” pictures afterward.
Bush has taken his share of criticism for fumbling the moment, and then for flying off around the country on a wild goose chase that took him to air bases further and further from where Dick Cheney was actually running things. But Card, as the man the Bush family had positioned to assure that the president didn’t fall apart in just these circumstances, was the real fumbler. He did not get the president refocused, he did not rise to the challenge.
As a result, the president was not the president that day. Nora Ephron summed things up well when she wrote last year that, “[If] you remember September 11, 2001 — and I’m sure you do — the President had no idea what to do, but the Vice President did. The Vice President took over. He didn’t even consult with the President. He put the President on Air Force One and the President spent the day flying from one airport to another, which was something that even the President eventually understood made him look as if he wasn’t in charge.”
“Cheney was the dominant figure on September 11,” observed James Mann, the brilliant analyst of U.S. foreign policy and policy makers who serves as senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even wire service reports noted that dominance, with United Press International suggesting that it “reintroduced nagging questions about who was realy in charge in the Bush White House.” Those questions grew louder after Cheney delivered a minute-by-minute account of the actions he took to secure the nation during an appearance the Sunday after the attacks on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley summed up the point of that appearance in an interview with UPI: “It was Cheney telling the world, ‘Don’t worry about Shrub, I know what’s going on.’ “
The question that history will ask with regard to Card — the only question — is this: As the senior aide at Bush’s side on the most significant day in recent American history, did he fail to get the president to focus on the crisis at hand? Or did he do what he was supposed to do: Get a weak and unprepared president out of the way so that the real boss could take charge?
That’s a question for historians to ponder.
In the end, however, no one will spend too much time on Andy Card’s role. He won’t be blamed, as he once feared, for the decline in Bush’s fortunes. His will be, by and large, the forgotten service of a man who managed a White House where powerful players — Cheney, Donald Rumseld, Karl Rove — constructed a presidency of their own design, while the elected commander-in-chief vacationed and exercised and generally ambled through history.
The truth is that Andy Card may well have failed not just his president but his country by allowing power and responsibility to drift so far from the hands of the elected president. But such failures are the stuff of footnotes and sidebars, not of the main storyline. Indeed, if Card is remembered at all by the great mass of Americans, it will be for that bit role in a Michael Moore film.