Capital insiders miscalculated

Official Washington reels as GOP Senate leader Lott faces new opposition, and Kissinger resigns from 9/11 commission.

It's a season when the pace of politics usually ratchets down for a few weeks, as official Washington prepares for a new Congress and new political season.

Instead, the Capital is caught up in unexpected controversies that are reminding power brokers that big career outcomes sometimes depend more by the acceptance of outsiders than insiders.

The resignations of Henry Kissinger as chairman and former Sen. George Mitchell as vice chairman of a new commission investigating the 9/11 attacks surprised insiders here.

So has the intensity of the reaction to comments by Senate Republican leader Trent Lott that seemed to endorse racist views. While Mr. Lott's Senate colleagues, including Democratic leader Tom Daschle, at first appeared willing to help the senator move beyond a "mistake," the public was not.

Typically, positions such as Senate majority leader or the head of a prestigious commission hinge on the respect and trust of colleagues inside the beltway. But the current cases highlight a different dynamic: that sometimes the plans of insiders get rewritten with outside help.

The White House surely didn't expect a firestorm of opposition to former Secretary of State Kissinger from the families of 9/11 victims and the press. And in the collegial atmosphere of the Senate, few expected that Mr. Lott's would be besieged for a recent birthday-party remark praising Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign.

"The people who are in the governing elite inside the beltway did not have a sense of what was coming, either on the reaction to the 9/11 appointments or to Senator Lott's remarks," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "They think they are the best informed, but in some ways they are the worst informed because they are in a cocoon."

President Bush initially opposed setting up a blue-ribbon commission to investigate what went wrong on 9/11. Some lawmakers wanted Congress to conduct its own investigation. In the end, the pressure of victims' families won acceptance of an independent investigation.

It was also the families of victims who insisted - with the moral clout of 9/11 behind them - that those who headed the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks should disclose their client lists. That proved to be a deal-ender for former Secretary of State Kissinger.

Last week, he and former majority leader Mitchell withdrew, after criticism over potential conflicts of interest with their consulting and law firms.

"It's not just the [9/11] families. Most people want to know the truth," Mr. Sabato says. "The elites have forgotten that Americans have been through many examples of this from the Kennedy assassinations on and they are tired of it."

The White House argued that, as an unsalaried presidential appointee, Mr. Kissinger should not have to abide by congressional rules on financial disclosure. Democrats in Congress and spokesmen for families of the victims disagreed.

In his resignation letter on Friday, Kissinger said that controversy over release of his international client list would delay the investigation and that he was not prepared to liquidate his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, to go back into public service.

"What [the families of victims] want is not having great names at the top of the commission, but a great investigation. That means a commission with an investigatory heart - willing to take the investigation anywhere, to any country and any client, to find out what was known and not known," says Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution.

Washington insiders have also been taken by surprise at how public reaction to the Lott comments, amplified initially over the Internet, have changed the political calculus on Capitol Hill.

Sunday, the first hints that Lott may face a challenge inside the Republican Caucus surfaced, as former GOP whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma called for another election for majority leader. Senator Nickles has been a top prospect to replace Lott.

"Nickles broke silence and has to find four more to agree to hold the caucus meeting. If that happens, Lott is in great jeopardy," says Mr. Sabato of the University of Virginia.

"If they have that meeting, there will be so much press attention that the Republican Party will pay an even greater price if they keep Lott," he says.

That concern is already running deep in GOP ranks outside Capitol Hill. "The [Senate] is a private club where only the members have a vote, yet the actions of these 51 people have ramifications for the rest of us down to the local council level," says a GOP adviser.

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