When General Colin Powell, the then much-respected former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (who had defeated Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War) was appointed secretary of state by George W. Bush in 2000, some thought Powell had made a big mistake by accepting the post.
The American media had built up Powell not only as presidential material, but as a uniquely desirable candidate. Such was his prestige that both the Democrats and the Republicans, it was widely reported, would welcome him as their party's presidential candidate.
Powell made it known that his wife was against the idea of him standing for the presidency. But although--or because--his candidacy never went forward, he was propelled on to a pedestal from which he could only bring blessings down upon whichever president had the wisdom to bring him into his government.
Few were surprised, then, when Bush appointed him to be secretary of state. The State Department, in particular, benefits a lot when it is headed by someone who is respected by all officials, no matter what party they happened to have voted for. Powell was looked upon as the one person in the Bush cabinet who had a truly national viewpoint, both in world and domestic affairs and the media said so.
But it is dangerous to be in a cabinet when you have greater prestige than the leader who appointed you. Especially if that leader happens to have a kitchen cabinet around him, well versed in the art of spin. Karl Rove, an arch-spinner, was there, and so too were other practiced Washington hands--Dick Cheney (vice president) and Donald Rumsfeld (defence secretary).
Now, journalists in Washington, especially the political correspondents, have taken anonymous briefings by officials to a level that makes politics in the county an anathema to all but the most thick-skinned individuals. A cabinet member, or even the sidekick of a cabinet member, who has a good collection of telephone numbers, can get loads of articles written by fawning political correspondents about the alleged political doings or non-doings of those in the cabinet. And all of it would be attributed to unnamed "administration officials" or "highly-placed officials". Note the plural--the political correspondents tend to give the impression that they have been talking to large numbers of people, even when only one person with an axe to grind has been their "source".
It is an insidious practice, in that the victim has absolutely no...