WASHINGTON—Apparently, a penchant for massages is the one thing that President Bush cannot abide in an underling.
Arranging a massive pay raise and promotion for a girlfriend? World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz "ought to stay," Bush said. "He ought to be given a fair hearing."
Admittedly muffing management of the Justice Department, then forgetting key details when a miffed Congress demands answers? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales "increased my confidence in his ability to do the job," the president said.
The planning and execution of the Iraq war and its aftermath? Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer and former CIA Director George Tenet kept their jobs long after their foul-ups became apparent. Bush awarded all three the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
But Deputy Secretary of State Randall Tobias, who quit the day he admitted to getting massages—and only massages—from an escort service?
"He resigned, and it was the proper thing to do," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday.
Thus is revealed the management philosophy of the CEO presidency. Favoritism, ineffectiveness and misleading Congress: OK. Massages: Not OK.
"Bush just doesn't like to make these hard decisions," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "In order to get fired in the Bush administration, you need to have hatchet in hand, the corpse in front of you, your fingerprints all over the handle and a photograph of the act in progress."
Speaking of acts: It's possible that Tobias is more culpable than he's letting on. The service from which he ordered his massages is run by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who's facing prostitution charges in Washington. She released phone records to buttress her defense that her escort service was a legitimate business. (That's how Tobias was pinched, metaphorically speaking).
Snow wouldn't say whether he believed that Tobias got only massages. But others seemed to get far more leeway. Even the administration's most infamous public flameout, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown, resigned only after the president told him he was doing "a heckuva job" in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Barbara Kellerman, an expert in leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said it wasn't unusual for people who perceived themselves as tough, top managers to have a hard time firing people.
"They're reluctant to face the music that inevitably ensues. . . . Firing them is openly saying `I made a mistake,'" Kellerman said. "Whether it's a policy stance or chosen people, rigidity has been a serious issue for this administration."
If rigidity is the problem, you'd think they could use more massages, not fewer.