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When starters flounder, call in the bench

President Bush introduced federal Judge Michael Chertoff yesterday as his fallback choice to succeed Tom Ridge as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Of course, Bush didn't use the term "fallback."
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

President Bush introduced federal Judge Michael Chertoff yesterday as his fallback choice to succeed Tom Ridge as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Of course, Bush didn't use the term "fallback." Or second choice, backup, fill-in, substitute, replacement, runner-up, reserve, understudy or Plan B.

He didn't have to. It's well known that Bush's first choice was former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik — at least it was until Kerik was forced to withdraw from consideration last month amid a blizzard of unsavory revelations about his personal and business life.

So there was Bush yesterday, standing stoutly with Chertoff at the White House and hailing his new nominee as a "key leader in the war on terror," a "skilled manager and a brilliant thinker" and someone who "will always be a friend to America's first responders."

But if Chertoff is so brilliant, why didn't Bush choose him to begin with? The question looms over fallbacks. Their job is not to dazzle or thrill. Kerik was widely described as "colorful" and "charismatic." No one ever describes fallback choices as colorful or charismatic. The second choice will ideally be viewed as a "comfortable" presence, the second spouse who will be nice to the kiddies and won't drink too much.

A confirmable choice
The chief virtue of the fallback is to be confirmable, to quiet things down, glide through the Senate with an ease that anesthetizes the pain from the embarrassing first choice. Bush pointed out yesterday that Chertoff "has been confirmed by the Senate three times" for previous government posts.

"As a rule of thumb, the second choice is a safer choice," says Thomas "Mack" McLarty, Bill Clinton's first chief of staff. A prime example is Dick Cheney, a respected congressman whom President George H.W. Bush nominated as his secretary of defense after his first choice, Sen. John Tower, was torpedoed by questions about his drinking habits.

McLarty says it is "human nature" to want to move on, to get someone in place and not invite more controversy. "There is a rhythm to the process," McLarty says, "and that rhythm dictates that nomination controversies should not last too long."

It's too soon to judge whether Chertoff will be recalled as a good fallback choice — such as Clinton's respected defense secretary William Perry (who took the job after Bobby Ray Inman withdrew his nomination and senators Warren Rudman and Sam Nunn turned it down) — or a disastrous fallback, such as Judge Kimba Wood, who withdrew her name from consideration as Clinton's nominee for attorney general two weeks after first choice Zoe Baird did — both for issues involving their domestic help.

"There is an implication that the second choice embodies a kind of moderation," says Jeff Smith, a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth College. Smith ran for Congress in Missouri last year and finished second in a field of 13, "so I am something of a fallback choice myself."

Several categories
Fallbacks come in several categories: There are statesmen — the Howard Bakers or John Danforths, whose experience, stature and decency is beyond partisan question.

Then there are nice guys whose inherent popularity makes them relatively safe. Sargent Shriver was a "socially popular choice" to be George McGovern's running mate after Thomas Eagleton's selection blew up over reports of past psychiatric treatment, says Ted Widmer, a former Clinton speechwriter and professor of history at Washington College.

John Edwards was considered a sensible pick as John Kerry's running mate because he'd proven himself to be an appealing figure during the Democratic primaries, he'd been vetted in the media and many party wise men were pushing him.

And, the Bush-Cheney campaign was quick to remind everyone, Edwards was not Kerry's first choice. Republican John McCain was.