Paige Nonsense

I was out of the country last week and expected to return to find an end to the media frenzy about Education Secretary Rod Paige being (a) unhappy with his job, (b) "out of the policy loop" and (c) on the verge of quitting. Alas, this foolishness seemed, if anything, to have intensified.

Having lived in Washington forever, I know this sort of thing occurs from time to time. Think of it as a form of political fiction writing or rumor mongering. The usual formula is to allege a rift or conflict between a senior official and the White House (or sometimes between White House aides), then make much ado about its significance and implications, using this occasion to cast the incumbent administration in a bad light.

These stories have three possible sources. The likeliest is journalists with little better to do, a yen to make trouble, keen awareness that gossipy stories about people draw more readers than dense articles about policy, and, usually, some anonymous source willing to abet this plan by saying something provocative off the record. Second, opponents of the administration (who may, of course, include the journalists and/or their sources) may deploy this tactic for their own purposes of policy or politics. Third, it's possible that someone within the administration-conceivably the person alleged to be unhappy-is using this public mechanism as a way to "send a message" into the Oval Office.

Whence came the Paige rumors? We'll never know for sure, but possibility three is not to be believed in this case, at least not by anyone who knows Rod Paige, his modus operandi, and his long-standing relationship with George W. Bush & Co. If he were truly miffed, which I find exceedingly unlikely, he would have picked up the White House hotline, not confided in journalists or outsiders.

If political opponents were behind these reports, they were pretty dumb. It's been alleged, for example, that conservative critics of the emerging E.S.E.A. bill, knowing of Paige's enthusiasm for school choice, peddled rumors of his unhappiness so as to leverage the White House into stauncher support for vouchers. Maybe. But it doesn't make sense. I've been as critical as anyone on this score, but it's long been clear to me-and, I think, to anyone with a brain-that E.S.E.A.'s slippage on choice (and some other reform strategies favored by the right) was well beyond rectifying before the Paige stories surfaced. As for critics on the left, it's not clear what they could gain from this kind of mischief beyond simply making the administration look bad. It's well known that this approach almost never yields policy changes; a single conversation between the allegedly unhappy official and the White House instantly eradicates any possible leverage.

I'm left with the conclusion that it was idle-handed journalists bent on making trouble. (For a vivid-and borderline racist-example, see Noam Scheiber's squalid piece in the June 21 New Republic.) It's so much easier-and quotable-to pen a trashy piece about the Education Secretary quitting than, say, to plumb the murky depths of Adequate Yearly Progress.

Two other points bear mentioning. First, it was clear before Rod Paige was even nominated that E.S.E.A. policy and negotiations would be handled from the White House, not the Education Department. This is what George W. Bush ran on-and the people who helped him develop these proposals during the campaign now serve on his immediate staff. He's passionately involved with this topic himself, as he was in Texas. Tons of other education issues lie ahead-research, statistics, assessment and special ed, to name the most obvious-that are less central to the Bush agenda and where the White House is apt to leave much of the heavy lifting to Paige and his team at the Department.

Second, today one simply must view Cabinet agencies as extensions of the Oval Office, not alternative power centers. Cabinet members, too, are creatures of the President, not independent policymakers. He may delegate broad authority to them-but then again he may not. As a rule of thumb, the higher an issue is on the President's own list of priorities, the tighter the White House reins will be. (The converse is true, too. I invite readers to identify a single "housing and urban development" issue that has yet surfaced in the Bush administration-or, for that matter, to name the incumbent H.U.D. secretary without looking it up.)

This is a fundamental truth about the modern Presidency in general, and it's clearly an operating principle of George W. Bush's administration in particular. We've seen plenty of examples in other agencies-just ask Christie Whitman or Don Rumsfeld-of the White House reversing policy decisions made by senior Cabinet officials, or simply gathering an issue into the White House and handling it there.

As for Rod Paige, he has bought a house in Washington and seems to be settling in for a long stay at the Department. Earlier this week, he lectured N.E.A. members about special ed. He's assembling a talented team. He's reworking agency management. He's making all sorts of plans and quietly advancing a lot of initiatives. He's meeting with the usual suspects-and some less usual. He's putting his imprint on the Department and, through tireless travel, on the nation. He happens to be one of the most successful education reformers alive. He's also a Bush loyalist. That doesn't mean they necessarily agree on every single thing, or that he's thrilled with every single clause of the E.S.E.A. bill. But anybody who claims to spot daylight between this Secretary and this White House is a candidate for Fantasy Island.

"Public schooling: Rod Paige learns the hard way," by Noam Scheiber, The New Republic, July 2, 2001

"Paige denies retirement rumors, unhappiness with Bush," by Michael Fletcher, Washington Post, June 28, 2001

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