The `Gate-Less Community: In Any Other Administration, Bush's Scandal-Plagued Army Secretary Would Be History. but the Rules Have Changed

By Green, Joshua | The Washington Monthly, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

The `Gate-Less Community: In Any Other Administration, Bush's Scandal-Plagued Army Secretary Would Be History. but the Rules Have Changed


Green, Joshua, The Washington Monthly


ONE WEDNESDAY MORNING IN LATE May, Army Secretary Thomas White arrived late at his ornate Pentagon office, the strain of a breakfast meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff still visible in his face. Not quite one year into the job, he was suffering through one of the rockiest tenures for a service secretary in decades. As the highest-ranking Bush administration official to have worked at Enron Corp., he had been dogged by critics since January. Lawmakers from both parties had gone after him for failing to comply with an ethics agreement to divest himself of Enron stock after he'd promised to do so. A list of his contacts with Enron officials since taking office, submitted at the request of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to determine if he'd traded on insider information, had turned out to be incomplete: White had claimed 29 contacts; it proved to be 84. In the midst of all this, he had taken a military jet to close the sale of his $6.5-million ski home in Aspen, prompting an investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general. Both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times had called on him to resign. As if that weren't enough, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had, without consulting White, eliminated the Army's prized Crusader artillery system. And when Army talking points surfaced on Capitol Hill immediately thereafter, warning that "a decision to kill Crusader puts soldiers at risk," Whites departure had seemed imminent. Things Were about to get even worse--his old business unit, Enron Energy Services, had been tied to price-fixing during California's energy crisis, and White had just learned that Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) would call him to testify before a Commerce Committee panel.

But first, duty called. White arrived to find a film crew and a swarm of tweedy officials from the National Science Center on hand to celebrate an educational "partnership agreement" with the Army. With weary resignation, he ushered the scientists in, gamely posed for grip `n' grin photos, and with practiced efficiency, dispatched the group with handshakes and "U.S. Army" tie tacks.

When the crowd was gone, White removed his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and collapsed into a chair to discuss his predicament, looking every bit like a man under investigation by the FBI, the SEC, and an inspector general. "Never having held a Senate-confirmed job, you tend to forget the complexity of the environment," he confessed, resuming an earlier conversation. "Obviously, against the background of Enron and all the public interest in that, that's probably made it even more challenging."

Though White retired from the Army as a brigadier general in 1990, he still speaks in the cadence and idiom of an officer. But with his thinning gray hair, pinstriped suits, and silk ties, he has come to resemble a business executive--one pummeled by bad news and giving more than passing thought to the possibility of stepping down. "It's a subject of daily conversation with my wife and I," he reflected, sipping a Diet Coke. "Is this all worth it? Your family is not used to seeing your name on the front page of the newspaper in a less-than-complimentary way. The question is, are you still an effective spokesman for the Army? Do you feel like your voice is heard in the department? Or do you get to the point where the distractions are just too great?"

When I'd first met him some months earlier, White had been addressing the Enron situation for the first time to a passel of handpicked reporters. Though candid and straightforward, at times even displaying a flash of Rumsfeld's brio, he conceded to reporters that he'd discussed the Enron connection with Rumsfeld and had retained a private attorney, and then pointedly addressed the topic on everyone's mind: "If I ever get to the point where the Enron business represents a major and material distraction ... then I wouldn't stay" Most in the room--perhaps even White himself--assumed this to be the groundwork for an impending resignation. …

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