News & Politics

Jenna’s Up, Condi’s Down: Bush-Era Winners and Losers

As the Bush administration winds to a close with more a whimper than a bang, here are the people most affected by its record. We interviewed current and former administration aides, journalists who cover the White House, and Republican officials to compile a list of the administration’s biggest winners and losers.

We looked at two criteria: whose star rose or fell, and who made great career moves or missed big opportunities. History will compile a more complete list, and for some—such as Colin Powell—the verdict is still out. This is best guess, circa November 2008:


1. Alberto Gonzales—As one Washington legal figure says, “The shame of it all is that Al was probably a really good Texas real-estate attorney.” The man whose biography the President loved to hail as an achievement of the American dream—the child of migrant workers, first in his family to go to college, graduate of Harvard Law—found himself in over his head as White House counsel and then as attorney general. Forced to resign amid scandal and allegations of politicization of the Justice Department, Gonzales found himself in an unlikely position: a former US attorney general who couldn’t find a job. He’s mostly been making speeches.

2. Scott McClellan—As White House press secretary, he was liked but not respected by the press corps. After his scathing memoir this spring, McClellan’s friendships were in tatters, and most White House observers were puzzled as to his goals. It’s hard to burn all of your bridges in one fell swoop, yet McClellan managed to do just that by alienating his old colleagues and confirming for the press and Democrats that he was a dupe all along. Where does that leave him? As one insider says, “No Democrat will touch him, and all the Bushies hate him.”

3. Condi Rice—The person thought to be one of the top foreign-policy thinkers of our time leaves after eight years in office—first as national-security adviser and then as Secretary of State—with a reputation as ineffectual and often out of the loop. Even as Time named her one of the world’s most influential people, it criticized her for squandering her influence—and, as a big Soviet scholar, she faces new criticism for allowing relations with Russia to sour. Says one former White House aide, “History won’t judge her well.”

4. George Tenet—We may never know if the CIA director actually uttered the infamous phrase “slam dunk” in reference to Iraq—Bob Woodward says he did; he denies it—yet the phrase will forever be his legacy.

5. Harriet Miers—The former White House counsel is perhaps the only Supreme Court nominee whose career was hurt by the nomination. She came to epitomize the administration’s propensity for valuing loyalty over competence, and her nomination left even Republicans furious. Conservative GOP senator Tom Coburn told her outright that she “flunked.”

6. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz—After a lifetime of public service, the two men will be remembered as the architects of the ill-conceived Iraq War. Such Rumsfeld comments as “Freedom’s untidy” and his combative briefings didn’t help his reputation, and he was thrown over the side after the 2006 elections. Wolfowitz, when forced from his World Bank post, realized how long Washington knives can be.

7. Lewis “Scooter” Libby—The highest-ranking member of the administration to face criminal prosecution, he ended up taking the fall for the Valerie Plame leak. Even though the President’s commutation saved him a 30-month prison term, he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and the trial cost one of the administration’s most important and highly regarded aides his anonymity and reputation.

8. Karl Zinsmeister—Filling the shoes of Claude Allen as the President’s top domestic-policy aide should have been easy; Allen resigned after being arrested in a fraud scheme at a Maryland Target store. However, Zinsmeister has made very little impact, a big whiff. There’s a dark joke in White House circles: “The most surprising thing about the White House salary list each year is that Karl Zinsmeister still works there.”

9. Karen Hughes—If she’d stayed in Texas after leaving the administration in July 2002, her reputation as a spinner extraordinaire might have remained intact. Her second lap, as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, will be remembered as a giant missed opportunity.

10. Michael Brown—The former FEMA director probably ranks as the administration’s biggest loser: He oversaw the response to Hurricane Katrina, and President Bush’s ill-conceived comment “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” is now one of pop culture’s most infamous compliments.

11. Michael Chertoff—The Secretary of Homeland Security has to wonder whether his position, where he has been forced to defend many of the administration’s security measures and face the fire on such issues as Katrina, was worth giving up his lifetime judicial appointment to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.


1. Henry Paulson—Whether history puts the Treasury secretary on a “best” list is an open question—his actions this fall may not end up looking so smart given more distance and time, and there have been moments when hubris has gotten the better of him—yet he’s won praise as a steady, firm hand on the economic tiller as the President faded into the background. Unlike many others in an administration known for placing ideology above all, Paulson seems to have the nation’s best interests at heart.

2. Tony Snow—The late White House press secretary was one of the administration’s beloved figures. After the pro forma daily briefings of Ari Fleischer and McClellan, Snow’s briefings were electric, combative, and fun for both reporters and viewers. The former broadcaster made friends widely and won the respect of the world’s most cynical press corps. His death was a national loss.

3. Bobby Jindal—Not many assistant secretaries of Health and Human Services for planning and evaluation ever go on to be household names, yet the 37-year-old who started at HHS under President Bush in 2001 is now Louisiana governor and a likely presidential candidate in 2012 or beyond.

4. Rob Portman—The former US trade representative and later director of the Office of Management and Budget will do well. The respected Ohioan was spoken of as a vice presidential pick this year. As one insider said, “Nothing but good press.”

5. Dan Bartlett—The stress of years in the White House took a toll on the once-boyish communications aide, yet he proved perhaps the savviest White House communications guru ever and landed on his feet—getting a top PR job and chatting with Katie Couric as half of CBS’s top political duo.

6. Robert Gates—Sure, maybe it was easy to follow Rumsfeld and look good. But Gates then excelled as Defense secretary to the point where President-elect Obama has indicated a desire to have him remain at the Pentagon.

7. Carlos Gutierrez—The Cuban-born Commerce secretary gave up a good job as CEO of Kellogg’s to join the Cabinet and has taken a lead on President Bush’s trade deals and immigration issues. He’s performed well, worked hard, and been one of the only members of the Cabinet to be socially active in Washington. Overall, he comes out ahead for his service, although one aide lamented, “If the Bush administration was different, he’d be a big winner.”

8. Josh Bolten—President Bush once railed against the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” which has been key to Bolten’s success as last White House chief of staff. Nothing has gone terribly awry, the trains run on time, decisions get made. In a thankless job, as one observer put it, “no one blames Josh Bolten for any serious problems.”

9. Margaret Spellings—Perhaps the President’s most successful Cabinet secretary, she rose from her post as the President’s domestic-policy adviser to be the nation’s first mother of school-age children to serve as Education secretary. She has walked a fine line at Education and not been tarred with the failures of the No Child Left Behind Act while still getting credit for some of its successes. She’s got a bright future.

10. Blake Gottesman—An argument could be made that Gottesman, the high-school boyfriend of first daughter Jenna, is the biggest winner of the Bush White House. He started off autopenning signatures in Governor Bush’s presidential campaign, then instead of going to college became the President’s “body guy,” took a break to get an MBA from Harvard (despite still never having graduated from college), and this summer returned to the White House as assistant to the President and deputy chief of staff—at 28, the youngest member of the President’s senior staff.

11. Jenna Bush—The University of Texas half of the First Twins, who early on had a reputation as a hard-partying college student, underwent a makeover in the final two years of the administration—writing a best-selling young-adult book on AIDS based on her time interning in Panama, teaching at a DC charter school, marrying a hunk and GOP scion, and moving to a quiet life in Baltimore.

Who are your picks for the Bush-era winners and losers? Tell us in the comments below. 

This article first appeared in the December 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.  

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