- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

The president's proposal to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security is sensible. However, several comments by prominent Republicans serve neither the president nor his goal of a safer country. Of greatest concern is the White House spokesman's assertion that the president's decision to create the department did not constitute a change of mind on his part, and that the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with politics or public relations.

This is not only silly, but it is slip-sliding towards Clintonism. Having worked in both the Reagan White House and as press secretary to Newt Gingrich, in my 20 years in Washington politics I can't remember a single announcement in which politics and public relations was not some part of the timing calculation: As well it should be. Denying the obvious not only fails to convince people, but worse, if it becomes a pattern, it breeds distrust.

For this president in particular the public's trust in his integrity and forthrightness is his strongest asset. As the war progresses, he will need that trust to effectively lead us. His spokesmen should husband that trust, not fritter it away on pointless dissembling.

That the president changed his mind on giving homeland security Cabinet rank should not be a matter of defensiveness. Sticking stubbornly to a bad idea is not a typical trait of great leaders. As Professor Eliot Cohen recently wrote, "Even the soundest strategic concept could not survive the crucible of war unmodified." Our greatest wartime leader, Abraham Lincoln, admitted in 1864, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

Far better for the president's spokesman to cheerfully say that he will beg, borrow or steal every good idea he can find. Instead, the spokesman who only recently before announcing the necessity of a Cabinet rank had said that we didn't need a Cabinet-level department has opened himself up to the jibe: Were you telling the truth then or now?

The second disturbing statement was Sen. Trent Lott's request on behalf of conservative Republicans that the president consider cutting the proposed workforce by 5,000, because they don't want to let the size of government grow. This is irrational. As a Libertarian-leaning conservative, I favor limited government. But protecting the public from terrorist attacks is clearly an inherent and needed governmental function (unlike, say, subsidizing the price of wheat, or making welfare payments to those who won't work).

The rational approach to the size of the workforce for this new department is to first define the mission, then assess the most effective way to accomplish it, and then provide for the people and material consistent with those judgments. At this early point when the scope of the department's mission has not even been agreed to arbitrary personnel-cut proposals are mere obeisance to ideology, rather than careful planning for national survival.

If they want to shrink the size and scope of government, let Congress go back and repeal the farm bill, campaign-finance reform, last year's transportation appropriation boon-doggle, or the size of the Department of Education bureaucracy. But when it comes to trying to save Americans from mass terrorism, let's assign as many people to it as may seem needed and useful.

The other unuseful words spoken when the president announced his department proposal have not been made publicly. But I am told that at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) last Thursday some of the senior management was passing the word to their employees that they should not worry: "You're not going to feel a thing" as a result of their merger into the new department.

Could there be worse advice given to a bureaucratic workforce? It is true that FEMA has performed with genuine excellence and commitment to the public in its short bureaucratic life. Thousands of Americans in distress after natural disasters have benefited from FEMA's efficiency.

But the challenge for FEMA's management is to lead their employees into the new department keeping the esprit de corps that exists there and prepare them to apply their dedication to the new mission. It is wooden-headed to suggest that nothing is going to change when the purpose of this transformation of government is precisely to accomplish change.

In the coming years, the fights in the new department will not be between those who came from one agency or another, but between rationalists and reactionaries.

I'm cheering for reason over anachronistic loyalties.


NOTE TO READERS: In last week's column I asked you to call the State Department and tell them not to sell the 14 Masai cows. You were magnificent. By 3 p.m. that day, the State Department had received so many of your calls (from around the world) that they announced a change of policy: The cows will not be sold. Thank you. However, they have not yet agreed to bring the cows home to America. I hope to report back to you in the near future with a plan for further action.


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