WASHINGTON - Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent wasn't surprised this week when President Bush supported embattled Baltimore Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro after he tested positive for steroids by saying the star first baseman was a trusted friend.
When Bush owned the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s, he was the only team owner to back Vincent in a confidence vote that eventually led to his ouster from baseball's top job in 1992.
"He was very supportive, very outspoken and all alone. I've never forgotten that," Vincent said. "That showed loyalty, an old Bush family trait and an admirable one."
Bush's loyalty to his friends extends from the baseball diamond to the White House, where he's backed beleaguered Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who's mired in an investigation over who leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer, and to John Bolton, whom Bush appointed ambassador to the United Nations despite Senate reservations.
But the president's quick and unequivocal defense of Palmeiro - who's now the subject of a congressional investigation - has raised questions about whether Bush's loyalty undercuts his political judgment.
"It seems that President Bush is falling into the Nixon trap - his administration can do no wrong. His allies and people who support him can do no wrong," said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. "Palmeiro is above suspicion, Rove is not to be questioned, John Bolton is a stand-up guy.
"The danger is he divorces himself from public reality, political reality, and it erodes his ability to lead the country," Dallek said.
Several analysts said the Palmeiro situation illustrates that point. Bush took a strong stand against steroids in his 2004 State of the Union address, demanding that major league sports take tougher action to eliminate steroid use by athletes.
"The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous and it sends the wrong message - that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character," Bush said.
But when news of Palmeiro's positive drug test and 10-day suspension by Major League Baseball became public, Bush almost instantly backed the ballplayer, saying Palmeiro spoke truthfully on March 17 when he wagged his finger at the House Government Reform Committee and emphatically denied ever using steroids.
Bush's fondness for Palmeiro - who recently became only the fourth major league player to slam more than 500 home runs and 3,000 base hits - dates back to when Palmeiro played for the Rangers under Bush's ownership.
"Rafael Palmeiro is a friend. He testified in public and I believe him," Bush said Monday. "He's the kind of person that's going to stand up in front of the klieg lights and say he didn't use steroids, and I believe him. Still do."
Bush's quick defense seemed contradictory to some, in light of his previous tough talk on steroids.
"His defense in this case, so quickly, seemed like an about-face, from taking a stand to a ridiculous statement a fan might make to another fan in a bar," said Richard Lapchick, chairman of the DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. "It certainly didn't seem like he thought that one through."
Peter Robey, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said Bush's defense of Palmeiro dented the president's credibility on an issue that he elevated into the national consciousness.
"He has to be very careful about being consistent," Robey said. "He should temper his support for Palmeiro by coming out with a statement that combines his loyalty to Palmeiro with a drive to rid baseball of steroids. He has to maintain his consistency."
Bush often described himself on the campaign trail as a president who says what he means and means what he says. But Dallek says his consistency sometimes fades when friendship and loyalty arise. He noted that when Rove's name became prominent in the CIA leak investigation, Bush's position on the flap appeared to soften.
In September 2003, Bush had vowed to take "appropriate action" against the culprit. In June 2004, he answered "yes" when asked if he would fire anybody who leaked the agent's name. Last month, his answer was nuanced: "If anyone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."
It's nothing new for a president to stand faithfully behind staff, family and friends.
- Abraham Lincoln rejected calls to remove Gen. Ulysses S. Grant after his Union troops suffered heavy casualties at Shiloh.
- Richard Nixon held onto aides HR Haldeman and John Ehrlichman long after they had become political liabilities in Watergate, though eventually they were forced to resign.
- Jimmy Carter suffered repeated embarrassments from his brother Billy's intervention into public affairs, but never turned against him.
- The first President Bush stood by to the end as his old Texas friend, Sen. John Tower, fought on futilely against Senate opponents who said his drinking made him unfit to serve as secretary of defense.
"This President Bush is close to his father and much like Ronald Reagan in terms of loyalty," said Karen Hult, a political science professor at Virginia Tech. "Loyalty can get presidents into trouble if they hang on to people too long. But loyalty, on the other hand, can enhance (staff) loyalty and raise morale."
Stephen Hess, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington, believes Bush's judgment isn't clouded by loyalty. The president had no problem in dismissing Lawrence Lindsey, his economic adviser during the 2000 campaign and the head of his Council of Economic Advisers until his ouster in 2002.
"That showed me he'll carry loyalty to a point - which is part of what presidents do," Hess said.
Of course, Lindsey was let go not long after he estimated publicly that a war in Iraq could cost $200 billion, far above Bush loyalists' line at the time, which may have been seen as disloyal. Iraq war costs will exceed $200 billion in the next year.
© 2005 Knight Ridder Newspapers