Christine Todd Whitman, the odd woman out in the Bush administration, will soon be out of the Bush administration. Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency since early 2001, Whitman says she is leaving to lead a more normal family life with her husband in New Jersey. That's probably true, as far as it goes.
But it's hard to avoid the sense that her decision also had something to do with the inherent difficulties of acting as a good steward of the environment in an administration that snickers at the word. Not long after her confirmation, for example, the president undermined his new administrator by rejecting her plan to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, even though he had pledged such action during his campaign for the White House.
Despite such top-down obstructionism, Whitman can count some achievements in her 28-month tenure as the head of the EPA. For New Yorkers, that includes the courageous 2001 decision to require dredging of the Hudson River, one of the nation's most spectacular waterways, to remove the tons of PCBs General Electric dumped into it before Washington banned the pollutants in 1977.
In the end, Whitman did not fit comfortably in an administration perched at the right wing of the Republican Party. Even more than Colin Powell, who is soon to be the only centrist remaining on the Bush team, she was window dressing for an administration eager to portray its conservatism as compassionate, even when it was not.
Whitman, a team player despite her frustrations, left now rather than handicap Bush's re-election campaign or, perhaps even worse, linger on in misery until it was over. But unless some other centrist is willing to play dress-up for this right-wing administration, Whitman's resignation means Bush will have a harder time next year convincing voters that he occupies a middle ground in American politics than he did in 2000 when his compassion component had gone untested.