Crawford's exit still mystifying

The mystery of the strange and sudden exit of a top Bush administration official two months ago continues to intrigue lawmakers, aides and lobbyists who aren’t used to being left out of the know.

What’s worse is the feeling that they may never know just what happened.

Amid the chatter about Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), saying “Lester Crawford” won’t exactly bring a hush to any room.

But for a certain circle of Hill staffers, lobbyists, journalists and other such types, their ignorance about the reasons the mild-mannered former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner left in September remains a popular topic of conversation.

More than two months after Crawford abruptly stepped down, the answer to the question “Why?” seems to be no nearer than on the Friday afternoon he tendered his resignation. No one even seems sure whether he quit or was fired.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). “It’s just very puzzling.”

“I think it is unusual,” offered Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

For any secret to be kept secret for that long in this town is, in itself, noteworthy. Official Washington is a place that values secrets deeply but trades them in just as cheaply.

Crawford walked away from the FDA job — from which he was inches away for more than three years — a mere 67 days after the Senate confirmed him. At the time, his age (67 — a coincidence?) was the closest thing he offered as a motive.

He got pretty roughed up during the confirmation process but if Crawford were going to back out, wouldn’t it have made more sense to do it before the Senate voted?

The press chased the story but leads quickly dried up. At one point, The New York Times based a story on the straight dope it got from Crawford’s brother-in-law. The case was not closed.

Consequently, a tornado of uninformation has been swirling since the day Crawford quit, powered by hot air from “educated” guesses.

“There’s a great deal of puzzlement,” one Senate Republican aide said. “I don’t think anyone knows for certain.” If the administration has the juicy details, it’s not sharing, he added.

The administration, under fire for its alleged unlawful leaking, has long maintained that Capitol Hill can’t keep a secret.

Crawford has been mostly mum. In a less-than-revealing interview, Crawford told Forbes.com, “I didn’t think it was possible to be very effective anymore.” He didn’t really say why, though, or why it took so long to pull the trigger.

Clinton seemed frustrated: “We are owed an explanation,” she said. They could get one, too, she said, “if we had a willingness on the Republican majority to conduct oversight hearings.”

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and ranking member Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) at least asked HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson to sniff around.

Others apparently aren’t as concerned. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) simply said, “My assumption is just that he got fed up with the headaches” that come with the job.

Under Crawford, the FDA endured a historically bad stretch. Including two lengthy stints as acting commissioner, he ran the place for 24 months.

While most do not blame Crawford for creating the agency’s problems, he is faulted for not coming up with solutions as the bad news mounted. The veterinarian-pharmacologist was out of his depth, some said.

Popular medicines turned out to be less safe than they were supposed to be. The FDA was called too cozy with drug makers. The agency’s put off a decision on allowing over-the-counter sales of the “morning-after pill” Plan B, critics said the administration was mixing religious politics with science.

Crawford took some personal hits, too, such as accusations that he was having an affair with a female subordinate whom he inappropriately promoted. He was cleared of the allegations, but a certain taint lingered.

But those things and the various theories being circulated aren’t satisfying the occupants of the echo chamber.

“It could be anything,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

Early talk focused on Crawford’s investment portfolio — did the White House neglect to vet this vet? According to news accounts, Crawford sold shares in some FDA-regulated companies. However, government ethics officials knew about it and chose not to slap his wrist.

The Plan B snafu has provoked conjecture, too. Crawford announced yet another delay in August — despite the fact that Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt greased the wheels for Crawford’s confirmation by promising Clinton and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that the FDA would make a ruling by September.

Some insiders say Crawford was made the fall guy for a policy he didn’t support. “It could be that he wanted to make it legal” against the White House’s wishes, Shays speculated.  “They couldn’t come out and fire him because he’s got too much on them,” one lobbyist offered. Others think that Crawford angered his superiors by making an announcement delaying a decision on Plan B  without warning them first.

There are probably even more pet theories. Unless the facts come out, people eventually will just pick one they like, after which it’ll evolve into “conventional wisdom” and be treated as fact. It’s a Washington tradition.