With the publication of Condoleezza Rice’s No Higher Honor, most of the George W. Bush administration staff’s memoirs are now out, and there appears to be a unifying theme: the tendency to refuse to name certain players. Rice uses this device more than 20 times. For example, she often refers to conflicts with “the Vice President’s staff,” notes that “a speechwriter” inserted the words “axis of evil” into a speech, and says “one of my aides” informed her “that Israelis are among the most legalistic people on Earth.”
Why Rice is so cryptic seems itself a mystery. She’s not protecting sources as a journalist might. She isn’t unwilling to name names—the Washington Post chided her for name-dropping. She’s also willing to criticize, going after Doug Feith by name, among others. It’s not because she doesn’t want to waste time naming ancillary characters: She identifies her trainer even as some ambassadors go nameless. It isn’t because the IDs of the people in question are a mystery: It’s well known that David Frum claimed credit for the “axis of evil” line. And space couldn’t have been an issue, because the book is more than 700 pages.
Karl Rove en-gaged in this coyness in his Courage and Consequence. The most intriguing instance concerned an aide in the 2000 campaign “who could be counted on to share sensitive, unauthorized information with the press” and whom Rove misdirected into telling the media that John Danforth, not Dick Cheney, was going to be the vice-presidential nominee. The most identifiable of Rove’s anonymous characters, at least to anyone familiar with the administration, is the “enforcer” Josh Bolten brought in “to make certain that [the facts behind candidate Bush’s policy speeches] were accurate, ready on time, and as meaty as possible”—talented but tough Gary Edson. When I asked Rove about his use of anonymity, he explained he “wanted to illustrate a certain point without embarrassing somebody.”
Less prominent aides also used the technique. Even though Tim Goeglein’s The Man in the Middle at times appears to include the names of every one of his White House colleagues (this writer included), he at one point has a long conversation with an unnamed staffer who talked to him, fairly innocuously, about the thinking behind Bush’s stem-cell policy.
Speechwriter Matt Latimer used anonymity in his nasty tell-all—typically to refer to aides who didn’t serve their boss well.
Former aide Ron Christie offers an eye-opening use of the contrivance in his book, Black in the White House: In one bizarre incident, a fellow staffer refers to the Vice President’s diverse staff by saying, “It’s starting to look like a ghetto down here.” Christie tells me, “The important thing for me was to give readers a sense of the story without tarnishing someone’s reputation.”
The most famous use of the anonymous coworker was by Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who throughout What I Saw at the Revolution calls chief of staff Donald Regan’s never-named aides “the mice” (since outed by Reagan biographer Lou Cannon as David Chew, Al Kingon, Tom Dawson, and Dennis Thomas). In a later essay in the Wall Street Journal, Noonan criticized two speechwriting colleagues, calling them “the Hack” and “haircut boy.”
Most of Rice’s anonymity cloaks are less vitrolic—often banal. But others are tantalizing, and probably identifiable—such as the US diplomat who didn’t like Bush’s June 24, 2002, Middle East speech and “told a reporter at a party that he could no longer do his job thanks to ‘that speech.’ ” Who is this nefarious character? Rice never says, but readers—and history—deserve an answer.
Do you think you know who Rice is talking about in each of the references posted at right? E-mail your guesses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the December 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.