This is how a presidency loses its momentum and authority: Not by a single defeat or frustration, but by a thousand cuts -- a host of misdeeds by a cast of minor miscreants.
"Miscreant" was one of several terms applied to government attorney Carla J. Martin this week by Justice Department lawyers trying to secure the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui. Because of Martin's pre-trial coaching of witnesses, the judge threw out half the government's case. That means the only person to be charged in the U.S. in connection with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is now far less likely to face the death penalty. The families of the victims are incensed.
Martin is but the latest in a cavalcade of government officials who have been pilloried recently. Martin's fall came right after that of Claude R. Allen, the president's former domestic policy adviser, who made headlines days earlier with his arrest for attempting to defraud two department stores.
The previous week, the goat was Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security (and Martin's boss), who had taken over as the main whipping boy for Hurricane Katrina. The previous occupant of that slot was Michael Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whom the White House excoriated this week for circumventing the proper chain of command after the storm hit.
The Katrina Team had been sharing time in the penalty box with the folks at the Treasury Department who left the White House in the dark about Dubai Ports World taking over some operations at six U.S. ports. Treasury saw no problem with an Arab government owning the rights to cargo handling in New York Harbor (among others). That judgment might well have been correct, but more than two-thirds of the country (and the Congress) saw it differently.
That episode has lowered President Bush's approval rating to new lows and eroded even his standing on matters of national security. How easy rests the head of Treasury Secretary John Snow in such times?
Also taking lumps of late is Mark McClellan, who took over running Medicare in time to implement the Part D prescription drug program. It was supposed to convince seniors that President Bush was their new best friend, and it may well have helped his re-election. But with the program now in place, widespread dissatisfaction is creating a problem almost as intractable as the occupation of Iraq.
McClellan's brother, Scott, meanwhile is still the embattled press secretary for the White House, although he is one of several high-profile aides rumored to be on their way out. Small wonder, given the awful press the president has received over the past six months and the deterioration in McClellan's ability to josh and parry with the press.
Actually, in just the last month, the Bush administration guy who's lost the most dignity is the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, who provided a season's worth of joke material by spraying a Texas hunting buddy with birdshot. That incident followed reports that Cheney had allowed the declassifying of secret information through his former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The former topsider is now awaiting trial for perjury and other charges arising from the exposure of a CIA undercover operative, Valerie Plame, back in 2003.
You can say this is all a string of bad luck. And it's true that every two-term presidency develops personnel problems sooner or later.
But there's something more than coincidence at work when so many people once promoted for their competence and professionalism suddenly find their reputations in tatters. We have seen this movie in previous administrations, but this time the turnaround seems particularly dramatic.
One reason may be that the sense of national crisis that animated the Bush administration after September 2001 is finally running its natural course. For many months, the president remained aloft, well above 70 percent approval in the polls. But with more time, and three years of war, the confidence people had in the administration has waned.
Unfortunately for the president, many of his operatives have not adjusted the way they do business to acknowledge this new reality. Moves they got away with before are getting them in trouble now.
And, remarkably enough, there are still 34 months to go until the next president takes the oath of office.