President Bush and his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr.


Bush Is Providing a Corporate Look for White House


By Richard L. Berke, March 11, 2001


WASHINGTON, March 10 - In the seven short weeks of his presidency, George W. Bush has transformed how the White House and elements of the sprawling government operate in ways that contrast sharply with those of Bill Clinton and other past presidents.

It is no accident that a bust of Dwight D. Eisenhower is perched to the right of Mr. Bush's desk in the Oval Office. Not since the general's days in the White House, some veterans of past administrations say, has a president so reorganized a government to function with the crisp efficiency of a blue-chip corporation.

The trappings are unchanged. As with Mr. Clinton, the American flag still looms over the president's right shoulder in photographs; at cabinet sessions, Mr. Bush still sits in the chair with the highest back.

But those common threads do not reveal the fundamental ways ó besides ideology ó that Mr. Bush differs from Mr. Clinton and many other modern presidents. These include the time he devotes to his job (far less than Mr. Clinton), the authority given to his vice president (Dick Cheney acts as a chief operating officer), the interplay among staff members (they must follow a dress code and rules on cordiality) and the use of pollsters (they have been kept out of the Oval Office).

For Americans whose notions of White House life stem from the chaotic, freewheeling Clinton era, or even from "The West Wing," the popular television program, Mr. Bush seems determined to render a different image.

"This is the only bureaucracy in Washington that can change to fit the personality of the president," Andrew H. Card Jr., Mr. Bush's chief of staff, who served in the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush's father, said in an interview. "This president is the first ever to have an M.B.A."

The recent release of Mr. Bush's budget blueprint underscores a telling difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton. By Mr. Card's estimation, Mr. Bush devoted "in the neighborhood of five hours" to meetings to discuss his budget proposal. By contrast, Gene Sperling, who for years was a top economic adviser to Mr. Clinton, said the former president spent at least 25 hours in official meetings assembling the budget in his first weeks in office, and 50 hours more in more casual settings.

Mr. Bush left it to Mr. Cheney to preside over a small group of aides to actually draft the proposal.

"There has been a sea change," said Kenneth Duberstein, who was a chief of staff for Mr. Reagan. "This is the first time in American history we've had a president and a prime minister."

The contrast also reflects altered economic realities from eight years ago.

"You have to remember how dramatically different it was to be in a time of deficits," Mr. Sperling said. "It wasn't like you sat around and just decided this is the best way to cut up the huge surplus you've inherited. We literally had to present Clinton with scores of potential cuts which could even cost members of Congress or the president himself an election."

Another reason Mr. Bush can afford to spend less time doing his job is that he has a far more focused ó Democrats say less ambitious ó agenda than Mr. Clinton. The former president at this point was promoting a raft of initiatives to expand government; Mr. Bush is sticking to his signature plan to cut taxes.

Mr. Bush imposes a discipline so tight that Mr. Card halts senior staff meetings at precisely 7:58 each morning ó even if people are in midsentence ó so he can arrive exactly on time for Mr. Bush's intelligence briefing at 8. Mr. Clinton was so undisciplined about meetings that his aides once consulted an efficiency expert.

On Monday, Lawrence Lindsey, Mr. Bush's chief economic adviser, arrived on time for the president to videotape a message to a banking convention, only to find that the taping had begun ahead of schedule.

Afterward, Mr. Bush gently upbraided his aide, saying, "Lawrence, we're the on-time administration."

Later that day, Karen P. Hughes, the president's counselor, said Mr. Bush frowned at her when she wandered into the Oval Office 10 minutes late for a meeting on Social Security. She had been dealing with reporters about Mr. Cheney's heart problems. "I looked at him and said, `Mr. President, it was for a good reason.' "

Then, Mr. Bush was described by aides as still more fidgety when Karl Rove, his senior adviser, arrived late to the same meeting, followed by yet another tardy staff member. Finally, Mr. Bush turned to Josh Bolten, the deputy chief of staff who was running the meeting, and according to people in the room, he deadpanned, "Seems you might have lost control of your meeting."

The president usually arrives at the Oval Office by 7 a.m. and is out the door by 6:30 p.m., often for dinner at the residence. Most weeks he leaves late on Friday afternoon for Camp David or for his ranch in Texas.

Mr. Card says he hears from Mr. Bush after hours maybe once every week or week and a half.

"He's called me as late as 10:30 at night," Mr. Card said. "Maybe even one night later than that."

Mr. Clinton, by contrast, often did not get to work until later in the morning but had a far longer workday, took off less time on weekends and was famous for making rounds of calls to aides well past midnight.

Mr. Card rejected the idea that Mr. Bush is a hands-off president, guided by his handlers, as many said of Ronald Reagan.

"Reagan was used to, if you will, getting stage direction," Mr. Card said. "But President Bush has been known as giving direction. I don't want that to be a disparaging remark about President Reagan. But he was ready to accept suggestions like, `Stand on this X,' `Sit in this chair,' `Look right,' `Look left.' "

Another stark difference is how this administration handles politics. While polling has been commissioned by the White House, Mr. Bush's pollsters joke that he has banned them from the Oval Office; they have yet to meet with him.

Stanley Greenberg, Mr. Clinton's first pollster, said that in the early days of the Clinton administration he met with the president weekly in the Oval Office to review the latest surveys, and often spent several days a week in the White House in the early months.

Pollsters and a dedicated orientation toward the hourly news cycle may be gone, but many people inside and outside the Bush White House say it is just as political as it was under Mr. Clinton, although in different ways.

For example, a close friend and adviser of Mr. Bush's said that Mr. Rove had spoken to him in specific terms about how the White House was reacting to the energy crisis in California ó and how that might affect the president's re-election prospects there.

"It's just as political, but it's not in-your-face political," the adviser said. "It's more of a big-picture perspective. It's not, How can we score points for the moment?"

Mr. Bush's friends say he learned from his father that he cannot tune out the political implications of his job, and he learned from Mr. Clinton to seize opportunities to sell his programs. A prime example is how Mr. Bush traveled to swing states this week to sell his budget.

"Clinton was so intimately involved in every detail," said Senator John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat. "With Bush, it comes from the bottom and works its way up the channels. But it's not any less political. The trips around the country are a classic political operation. That's playing tough, hard politics."

An important reason for what has been widely regarded as a smooth takeover of the government is that Mr. Bush has surrounded himself with veterans like Mr. Cheney and Mr. Card. Staff members are also, by and large, older than those of past administrations, which is another reason for the more subdued White House.

The newcomers, like Ms. Hughes and Mr. Rove, have taken steps to gain institutional knowledge.

For example, Ms. Hughes enlisted Margaret Tutwiler, a veteran of the Bush and Reagan administrations, to work beside her as a volunteer in the first 90 days of the administration.

"There's a lot about Washington and how the White House operates that I don't know," Ms. Hughes said. "When I have a question about something, I say, `Margaret, do you remember how this was done before?' "

Ms. Hughes said it was Ms. Tutwiler's idea for the president to pay tribute to Representative Joe Moakley, Democrat of Massachusetts, who has leukemia, in his address to Congress. And it was Ms. Tutwiler, she said, who intervened when the staff tried to put a teleprompter in the East Room, saying it had not been done in the past.

Several longtime government observers said they expected members of the cabinet to have far more latitude than those under Mr. Clinton. That is because of Mr. Bush's penchant to delegate and because he picked seasoned, independent people.

"It's going back to a cabinet government," said former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. "What's interesting to me is how many of the people here are people who have been here before and have a sense of this place. They are steady and not new to their work ó and they're not wondering how it will all come out."

Still, it also appears that the White House is in firm control of the cabinet. When Christie Whitman, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced recently that she was letting stand a flurry of regulations imposed by Mr. Clinton, Mr. Card said she had first cleared it with his staff.

"It is normal for major rules or major policy pronouncements to be coordinated with the White House," Mr. Card said. "The president is the leader of the executive branch of government."

Many officials in the Bush White House said they were struck by how there seemed to be far less back - stabbing than there had been even in Mr. Bush's father's White House.

Even Democrats on the outside have noticed that.

"I am impressed by how much this White House seems to be geared toward the president and his interests rather than self-promotion," said Douglas Sosnik, who was a top aide to Mr. Clinton for six years. "If there's a mistake, staffers take the blame and insulate Bush from it. I'm not sure I could always say that about the Clinton White House."


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© 2001 by Neil Mishalov