Thursday, January 27, 2005

Loyal to Her Party, but Not in Lock Step

The New York Times
January 26, 2005
Loyal to Her Party, but Not in Lock Step


IT is one of the more fortunate footnotes of last week's inaugural festivities: When President Bush was sworn in for his second term, Christie Whitman, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency during his first term, was thousands of miles away, attending a corporate board meeting.

Mrs. Whitman said she had unsuccessfully urged the company, Texas Instruments, to reschedule, and that she nonetheless managed to attend a few pre-inaugural soirees in Washington. But given the furor Mrs. Whitman has ignited among some of the president's most fervent supporters, it's a wonder she made it out of the capital without celebrating conservatives using her as piñata.

The flashpoint for her latest clash with conservatives is Mrs. Whitman's new book, "It's My Party, Too," which warns Republican that their lurch to the right, while successful in the short-term, runs the risk of marginalizing the party over the long haul. She brands the most fire-breathing right-wing activists as "extremists" and "social fundamentalists" and needles Mr. Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, by pointing out that the president's three-point margin of victory last November was the narrowest of any incumbent ever re-elected.

The Bush family omertà demands silence and loyalty from all the president's retinue, so Mrs. Whitman's decision to speak out is in itself an outrage. Some have questioned her credentials as a Republican and ridicule her for arguing against a strategy that has brought the party unprecedented power. A few have even compared her to Michael Moore.

"I expected criticism," Mrs. Whitman, 58, said last week, sitting in the living room of Pontefract, her family's gracious farm in New Jersey's hunt country. "But I'm surprised at how personal the attacks are."

The bitterness of the reaction is all the more surprising because Mrs. Whitman's book, like her public record, performs some astounding contortions to avoid criticizing the president himself.

Mr. Bush's decision to break his campaign promise to curb carbon emissions from power plants? A reasonable choice, Mrs. Whitman argues, marred by poor public relations. She asserts, without irony, that Mr. Bush is a closet environmentalist, forced to hide his inner tree hugger for fear of riling Republican extremists.

In fact, the only member of the Bush inner circle cited in the book for environmental negligence is Barney, a Scottish terrier Mrs. Whitman sold to the president, and who "christened" the carpet in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

Of course, in publishing, as in politics and paper training, timing is everything. Even as partisans on the right have blasted her, many on the left are angered that she waited until after the election to complain.

So why didn't Mrs. Whitman publish sooner? And why should environmentalists or moderates take her seriously, given that she was chairwoman of Mr. Bush's re-election effort in New Jersey? Mrs. Whitman's explanation is simple: The president isn't the issue. The party is. "If I had spoken up during the campaign, people would have viewed it in the context of the election, and it would have been forgotten the next day," she said.

That answer is undeniably consistent with Mrs. Whitman's political lineage. Her father, Webster Todd, was a state Republican Party chairman; her mother, Eleanor Todd, was a vice chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. Family lore holds that they met at the party's 1932 convention. Mrs. Whitman first attended a convention at age 9, when her parents were instrumental in persuading Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president. And she hasn't missed one since.

MRS. Whitman contends that those who do not consider "Eisenhower Republican" insulting are true conservatives, because they embrace fiscal restraint and limited government, and do not seek to legislate morality.

She views her book as a call to arms, urging Republicans who share her support for abortion rights, stem-cell research, and gay rights to become "radical moderates" who match the zeal and organization of the right wing.

Mrs. Whitman begins her book tour tonight with a reading at Cooper Union in Manhattan, the site where Lincoln challenged the Republican establishment in 1860 by giving a speech that propelled him to the White House. Still, Mrs. Whitman says that seven years as New Jersey governor and 28 months in Washington have squelched any desire to run for office again.

Returning to New Jersey has allowed Mrs. Whitman to spend more time on her 234-acre farm with her husband, John, and their dogs. On occasion she even buys livestock at auction.

Working from an office above the barn, she juggles her schedule of board meetings and lectures, served as an election observer in the Middle East and Cambodia and is starting an environmental consulting firm.

She hopes the book helps expand her role as a fund-raiser and proselytizer for Republican moderates. "If you veer too far from the center in American politics, eventually people will stop listening," she warned.

What Mrs. Whitman will find out in the coming months is this: With Republicans ascendant, and Washington awash with conservative hubris, is anyone in power willing to listen?