Politics with Ron Elving: Revolt of the Generals

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NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving looks further into the debate spawned by former generals who've pushed for the end of Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as Secretary of Defense. Elving speaks with Alex Chadwick about the political week ahead.


And to Washington now, where the question is, who goes and who stays, and not just for the Defense Secretary. Today the new White House Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten, asked anyone who's planning to leave the White House by the year's end to go immediately, go now.

Joining us is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Hi, Ron. Welcome back. And first, how about Don Rumsfeld today?

RON ELVING reporting:

I'm afraid that things are still pretty cloudy and rainy for Don Rumsfeld when he looks out at his particular outlook, despite all the efforts of the White House and the Pentagon to improve things.

Tomorrow they're going to be gathering about two dozen retired generals at the Pentagon. They're going to be talking to them and briefing them. And presumably we're going to hear from some of them that they think that the Secretary of Defense has been doing just fine.

But basic defense, though, for Rumsfeld remains the same from the Administration. They feel he's being scapegoated, that he's not really responsible for what's gone wrong in Iraq, and that a lot of the resentment that's coming from the uniformed services has more to do with turf and ego and personalities.

CHADWICK: Mr. Bush came out over the weekend and said nice things about the Secretary. But does he really retain the support he needs within the White House?

ELVING: You always wonder that when you hear these strong statements of support, the sort of 1,000-percent-behind-you statements. But this White House can really dig its heels in. And they can decide that they are with someone and they are not going to be, they're not going to be moved.

I think in this particular case, Rumsfeld has the best advocate you could hope for in this White House in Dick Cheney. The two of them go back 40 years to a time together on Capitol Hill in the late '60s. They worked together in the Nixon Administration, the Ford Administration. And they've been together often since, and their mutual confidence appears to be undiminished.

CHADWICK: Okay. How about lots of other people in the White House, Ron, who may have some decisions to make today about their own futures?

ELVING: Well, as you said, the new White House Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten, took over today. And he said anyone who's planning to go by year's end should go now. You have to understand there's a very typical pattern in White House staffing whereby people leave right after the second midterm election in a President's second term.

So after six years they figure the going is good and usually the money is good and that's when they take off, cashing in, as it were. Bolten wants to clear the decks now, if he can.

CHADWICK: Huh. Why is that?

ELVING: It's because he would rather have a new team to go forward before the elections in November, which the Republicans are very worried will turn into some kind of a referendum on the war in Iraq and be very damaging to the President's party in Congress.

CHADWICK: Okay. Treasury Secretary John Snow. This has got to be his day. Of course there's been talk that he might be leaving office as well. But this is tax day. All the money's coming in. This is Christmas for the Treasury Secretary, isn't it?

ELVING: That's right. He's making a list and he's checking it twice. Actually, when you look at John Snow these days you have to wonder what life would have been like for him had it not been for the distraction in this administration of Iraq and Katrina and immigration, all those issues.

They had wanted to talk about taxes in this presidential second term and his tax overhaul plan and the commission report that they put together has all been basically sidelined because of all the other issues that have gotten everybody's attention.

And then on top of that, when you hear people talk about heads that might roll in the cabinet, one of the first heads that gets mentioned is John Snow's own because he's held responsible for the Administration not getting out its good news about the economy.

CHADWICK: NPR Washington senior editor Ron Elving with all the good news here on Mondays. Ron, thank you.

ELVING: My pleasure, Alex.

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