Changing the Guard

'It does no harm to throw the occasional man overboard," observed British politician Ian Gilmour. "But it does not do much good if you are steering full-speed ahead for the rocks." One of the great lions of the London political scene in the middle of the last century, Gilmour would have been among the last people surprised by the sudden defenestration of Donald Rumsfeld by the man who, just days earlier, pronounced that his embattled defense secretary was doing a "fantastic" job. The course for the rocks in Iraq had been largely charted by Rumsfeld, with his failure to provide a post-invasion plan with even the remotest chance of success. To a gimlet-eyed observer like Gilmour, the ouster was all but inevitable. Yet such was the depth of the White House state of denial over Iraq-indeed, over the several glaring embarrassments that have blotted its second-term copybook-that even jaded observers wondered whether President Bush knew something they didn't know when he professed, on the very eve of his political Waterloo, confidence in an 11th-hour GOP triumph.

After his defeat in the general election in 1945, Churchill, another grizzled veteran of London's political fratricide, responded to his wife's vain efforts to comfort him. "If it is a blessing," he told her, "it is certainly very well disguised." The same, perhaps, may not be said for the voters' rebuke of the White House. A less chastening result

and, who knows, the president might have been persuaded to stick with Rummy and, even if he had to refrain from using the actual words, to "stay the course." Blessings come in all sorts of strange packages, and this may prove one of the stranger but, in the end, more salutary.

Psychobabble. One of Washington's more tedious parlor games has been the whispered wonderings about strains in the relationship between the younger Bush and his father. The return to center stage of one of the elder Bush's most trusted aides as Rumsfeld's replacement prompted a frenzied new round of psychobabble. Not only was Bob Gates the elder Bush's CIA director, but he also served as deputy to Brent Scowcroft, the older man's national security adviser and close friend. Scowcroft's break with the current White House over Iraq was offered as Exhibit A in the case for a rupture in the relationship between Bush pC(re et fils. Hmm. If armchair psychology doesn't happen to be your thing, however, and you're one of the many millions of Americans whose vote seemed to express the belief that the Bush team has slipped its intellectual and political moorings, the casting of James Baker seemed to suggest a more simple if less charitable plotline: adult-supervision time!

To those most deeply cynical about the 43rd president, of course, such supervision was supposed to have been supplied by Dick Cheney. But when someone like Scowcroft, who has known and worked with the vice president for about 30 years, says the current Cheney is someone he "doesn't know," the evidence of something being seriously amiss is pretty hard to ignore. Which is why last week's White House drama seemed to offer more plots and tangled subplots than a Tolstoy novel, only without any of the brooding darkness. Nope, Rummy was out, Gates was in, good fellows all, smiles all around. Thus, it was on to lunch with House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, then a grip-and-grin with Harry Reid, the incoming Senate majority leader. Hatchets buried, knives sheathed-lots of work to do.

The cockeyed optimists among us would have us believe that elections offer a chance for renewal, a fresh start. Such hopes have been dashed countless times, of course, but voters spoke with such force and clarity last week that perhaps this time will be different. Old Gilmour would be having none of it.

By Brian Duffy