Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Toby Ziegler: space cowboy

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While most political scandals result in the justice system weighing whether a person in power has committed a clear-cut act of wrongdoing, sometimes it is not so simple. The debate still rages over whether the actions of Tobias Zachary Ziegler were heroic or treasonous.

Born in Brooklyn in 1954, Ziegler attended City College of New York and went on to receive a doctorate in communications. He began working as a professional political operative for several Democratic races in the New York area: one city council race, one gubernatorial race, one Senate race, two House of Representatives contests, and one national campaign. Not one of the campaigns had resulted in a victory before Ziegler joined New Hampshire Governor Josiah Bartlet's presidential campaign as communications director. Notably, Ziegler was the one survivor of a shakeup of the New Hampshire Governor's campaign staff in 1997. Leo McGarry, Bartlet's campaign manager and later Chief of Staff, later said he thought Ziegler's idealism could help bring the fledgling campaign into the White House.

Following Bartlet's election in 1998, Ziegler joined the West Wing staff as communications director and senior domestic policy adviser. He wrote both of Bartlet's inaugural addresses and later served as de facto press secretary when C.J. Cregg was promoted to Chief of Staff. Known for noticing subtle signs in a person's behavior, Ziegler was the first senior staffer told of the President's multiple sclerosis after deducing patterns in his behavior. This quality could sometimes backfire, however. Ziegler was publicly embarrassed in 2004 when Republican Senator Steve Gaines of Illinois confirmed that the communications director had tried to persuade him to support cutting Social Security, perhaps as a political ploy. Ziegler turned in a letter of resignation after that incident, but Bartlet refused to accept it.

Presaging later events, Ziegler was "fired" for one week to manage a 2002 California congressional campaign. In a bizarre contest, Democrat Horton Wilde posthumously unseated Republican congressman Chuck Webb. Sam Seaborn, deputy communications director and and a native of the congressional district, was chosen as the Democratic replacement who unsuccessfully contested Webb in the special election. During this time away from Washington, Ziegler and Charlie Pace, personal aide to the President, were arrested after a bar scuffle. The fight allegedly started after a drunk patron began harassing Democratic Congresswoman Andrea Wyatt of Maryland, Ziegler's ex-wife, who was pregnant with his twins. No charges were pressed in the incident.

In 2005, a leak aboard the International Space Station led to a steady loss of oxygen. The lives of two American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut were in peril, and no ships from either country were available for a rescue mission. After a few days of desperate measures to try to slow or fix the leak, the New York Times reported that a senior White House official had confirmed the existence of a military space shuttle based at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Forced to admit the shuttle's existence, the unnamed vessel blasted off soon after and brought the stranded men out of orbit. Furious at the breach of national security laws, Bartlet called for an immediate investigation into the source of the leak. Greg Brock, the Times writer who broke the story, went to jail after refusing to give up a name.

Ziegler privately confessed to Bartlet that he had tipped the press on the shuttle, and again offered to resign. Bartlet refused, instead firing Ziegler. He recounts that he said to Ziegler, "When you walk out of here, there will be people out there, perhaps a great many, who'll think of you as a hero. Just don't think that I'm going to be one of them."

Ziegler was replaced by William Bailey as both communications director and press secretary. Ziegler steadfastly refused to disclose where he had found out about the shuttle. It was later revealed that Ziegler's brother was a likely source, as he had been a NASA specialist before committing suicide upon a diagnosis of terminal cancer, but Ziegler has not confirmed this. Facing six years in prison, he was saved by a presidential pardon, Bartlet's last official act. Although her association with Ziegler significantly damaged Congresswoman Wyatt's chances in the 2006 election, she was re-elected by a narrow margin.

Ziegler has since become a professor of communications at Columbia University.

Sources: "Tobias Ziegler Named Communications Director" in the Washington Post on Nov. 20 1997, "White House Communications Director to Join Seaborn Ticket for One Week" in the New York Times on Jan. 3 2003, "White House Officials Arrested in Bar Fight" in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 6 2003, "Gaines Confirms White House Official Urged Social Security Cut" in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 8 2004, "Military Shuttle Could Save Astronauts" in the New York Times on April 14 2006, "Communications Director Ziegler Leaked Shuttle Info" in the Washington Post on April 29 2006, "Ziegler Silent on Source" in the New York Times on June 10 2006, "Ziegler Sibling was NASA Specialist" in the New York Times on October 24 2006, "Bartlet Pardons Ziegler as Last Official Act" in the New York Times on Jan. 21 2007, Bartlet for America by Josiah Bartlet,

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