Monday, April 23, 2007

The US president's men in dire straits

by Laurent Lozano Sun Apr 22, 7:06 PM ET

The president's men have fallen on hard times.

With US President George W. Bush already facing a tough second term with a dismal approval rating hovering around 30 percent, his inner circle has been hit hard by scandals and a chorus of calls for resignations.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has faced a barrage of criticism and calls for him to step down over his handling of the firing of top prosecutors.

Bush's political guru Karl Rove, a White House aide once dubbed "Bush's Brain," has consistently been the target of animosity from the administration's harshest critics who see his hand in many scandals.

Even leaving the administration doesn't leave one safe.

World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, the former Pentagon deputy chief, is hanging on to his job by a thread amid a favoritism scandal over a hefty pay raise to his girlfriend, a bank employee.

Two of the most criticized "Bushies" -- as the president's loyal confidants are often called -- have already lost their jobs after Democrats took control of Congress from Bush's Republicans in November elections.

Donald Rumsfeld, an architect of the Iraq war, resigned as defense secretary just a day after the November 7 elections that were marked by deep voter anger over the conflict.

The next election casualty was John Bolton in December, a fellow hawk who was unable to stay on as UN ambassador as the Democratic-held Senate would have likely refused to confirm him at the post.

Is the Bush White House crumbling with two years left in his term? "In one sense, yes," said political analyst Eric Davis.

Gonzales, a longtime Bush aide who was his legal advisor during his term as Texas governor in the 1990s, was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to explain his role in the firing of eight US attorneys, which Democrats say was politically motivated.

A top Republican, Senator Tom Coburn (news, bio, voting record), bluntly called for his resignation.

White House foes want Rove to testify about his own role in the scandal.

Wolfowitz, meanwhile, has been accused of hypocrisy after revelations that he ordered a hefty salary worth nearly 200,000 dollars for his girlfriend, Shaha Riza, in 2005, while steering a controversial campaign against corruption in the World Bank's 24-billion-dollar annual lending.

Despite being besieged by their critics, all the president's men share the same fortune: the steadfast support of the US commander in chief.

Bush had resisted repeated calls for Rumsfeld's resignation over the handling of the Iraq war, ceding only after the Democrats' election triumph.

The president, who had placed Bolton at the UN post while the Senate was in recess, also gave up trying to push the pugnacious diplomat's nomination through the Senate only after Democrats took over.

A Washington Post columnist questioned if Rove, Wolfowitz and Gonzales can be trusted.

"Today's topic is credibility -- specifically, recent claims by certain high-ranking present, former and perhaps soon-to-be-former Bush administration officials," columnist Eugene Robinson wrote this week.

"The aim is to answer a simple question: Should we believe these three Bush loyalists if they tell us that rain falls down instead of up, or should we look out the window to make sure?" it said.

"Rove, Wolfowitz and Gonzales are making the last-ditch argument of a cheating husband caught in flagrante: Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

To Eric Davis, the Bush insiders are paying a price for their loyalty to the president.

"They may think too much about supporting Bush and not enough about what's right in a legal or a political sense," he said.

But in the end, analysts say, when Bush and his inner circle have long left the White House, the scandals will only be a footnote under the issue that most worries Americans: Iraq.

"In five, 10 years from now, when people talk about George W. Bush, I think it's going be about Iraq, not Alberto Gonzales, Paul Wolfowitz or Karl Rove," Davis said.

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