Even in the end, Kathleen Sebelius was off kilter.
“Unfortunately, a page is missing,” the outgoing health and human services secretary said Friday as her eyes searched frantically for the words that were supposed to carry her to the end of a Rose Garden farewell address.
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She wound up ad-libbing well enough. But the moment encapsulated so much of how the public viewed her five-year tenure.
On Friday, not even the well-choreographed applause for the TV cameras that went on too long when she was introduced one last time could mask the disappointment. Such great promise gone unmet.
“She’s got bumps,” said President Barack Obama. “I’ve got bumps, bruises.”
It’s possible at times like this to acknowledge two competing ideas: first, how uncomfortable it’s been the past few months watching the proud former Kansas governor I’ve covered for nearly a quarter-century slip, then dangle, then fall off the D.C. high wire. Second, the sloppy rollout of the Affordable Care Act is clearly on her. That’s the responsibility she took when she signed up.
Anybody who has worked for Kathleen Sebelius knows she doesn’t suffer fools. Yet, unfairly or not, many now place her squarely in that category.
For the first 64 years of her life, that was never a word anyone attached to her. Reared in the home of an Ohio governor, Sebelius learned the political game. Never reveal too much. Measure every remark. Watch your back. Trust few. Always expect excellence. Always, always work to control your own fate.
And work hard. Sebelius never fell short in that department, a trait that earned her enduring loyalty and affection from those beneath her on the flow charts.
So you can imagine how tough the past few months have been for her. Only she knows what it was like as the ACA rollout flopped with all the subtlety of a plane crash. Only she knows what it was like to endure those botched appearances before Congress and Jon Stewart.
And then there was the humiliation that came when the White House swooped in and snatched control of the program that Sebelius has called the greatest cause of her career.
Sebelius knew what was happening. She was cut out. When the president was told the program had surpassed its 7 million enrollment goal, Sebelius wasn’t even in the room.
It was death by a thousand cuts. Friends say the stress tore at her. But today, the face of health care controversy is gone with one more damaging moment.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “a page is missing.”