• U.S.

Bolten Tries to Right the Ship

5 minute read
Mike Allen

Among insiders, it’s being called “the reboot.” Although President George W. Bush stuck close to home when he chose Budget Director Josh Bolten to succeed chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. last week, officials consulted by the White House said the overhaul will be more consequential than it looked at first. These officials said Bolten, who comes on board April 15, plans to put some new faces in front of the public and on Capitol Hill. Bush, who retired to his Texas ranch for the weekend after a summit in Cancún, did not want it to appear that inside-the-Beltway carping had sparked a staff shuffle. Now it can be attributed to Bolten, who will add some meat to an election-year agenda that has disappointed even some of the President’s most fervent supporters. Speaking of Bush’s team, a Bolten friend said, “Josh thinks they need to communicate better, and need something better to communicate.”

The new appointment has bought Bush some time, but allies of the White House say he must do more. They say Bush has the chance to right his second term if he is willing to follow through with a few more tough decisions, such as one to increase the social contact he has had with key lawmakers.

For all the blame Card was getting around Washington for the drifting of the second term, he was sufficiently beloved in the West Wing that some officials cried after he went before cameras in the Oval Office and told Bush in a choked voice, “Ecclesiastes reminds us that there are different seasons, and there is a new season.” The staff had also embraced his wife Kathleene Card, a Methodist minister who often told reporters that she prays for the press.

Card did not want to go. But he “heard the tom-toms,” according to someone who knows him well, and told Bush it was in the best interests of the team for him to leave, five months short of the record tenure in the job set by Sherman Adams under President Dwight Eisenhower. “People like Andy personally, but they’re relieved, because this should have happened a year ago,” a Bush confidant said.

It will be a bittersweet exit for a proud Massachusetts pol who started serving the Bush family in 1979, when he would pick up the President’s father at Boston’s Logan Airport in a red Chevette with rusty floorboards and drive the elder Bush, in his first bid for the Republican presidential nomination, to campaign stops throughout New Hampshire. Card, now 58, went on to become George H.W. Bush’s last Secretary of Transportation, and remains “Secretary Card.”

His other moniker, “the Chief,” passes to Bolten, 51, a CIA agent’s son and former investment banker who has a fancier résumé, a wry humor, less disdain for the press and more interest in policy. As policy director of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and his first deputy chief of staff for policy, Bolten is steeped in the current system. In meetings, he often whips out a giant calculator to show the price when, as an aide put it, “someone wants to save a continent from malaria.” He’s self-assured enough that he has been known to tell underlings he didn’t need to accompany them to meetings with the President. “He would stay out of meetings in the Oval if he thought the President would benefit more from a smaller discussion,” says lawyer Jay Lefkowitz, who worked with Bolten under both Presidents Bush.

Bolten can be tough. And some staff members fear that the family friendliness of the West Wing may disappear under this bachelor workaholic. This is a White House where rush hour is 6:30 a.m., but evenings and weekends are usually spent at home. Bolten routinely works until 10:30 p.m. and is often seen around the complex on the weekend in jeans, tennies and a favorite red plaid shirt. Some senior and mid-level staff members are uncertain about signing on for a new regime that could have the intensity of a campaign. Bolten will “expect everyone to be on the job in a new and invigorated way,” according to a colleague. “That’s the benefit, but the rank and file can expect things to be more rigorous.” Associates say he wants clearer lines of authority and delineation of duties.

The day Bolten was promoted, he began making the first of many calls to lawmakers of both parties, including one that pleasantly surprised Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, vice chairman of the House Republican conference. “I’m not a big fish,” Kingston admitted, “and he said, ‘We’re interested in what you’re hearing out there and what you guys on the Hill have to say. We want your input.'” Now the challenge for the new chief, and his boss, is what to do with it.

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