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Pressure Cooker

Andrew Card Has the Recipe for Chief of Staff Down Pat

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page C01

Andrew Card is talking about his kitchen. "I know my kitchen really well, as evidenced by my rotund being," Card says, patting his belly. "I know where the oven is and I know where the microwave is and I know where the sink is and I know where the refrigerator is and the freezer and the cupboards and the table and the chairs."

Card, 57, is sprawled on the couch of his West Wing office, describing the kitchen from his mind's eye. It is from here that the White House chief of staff organizes the nation's most potent workplace and man-hours. Like his boss, Card is an aggressively lowfalutin character. He is the longest-serving chief of staff in 46 years, yet he reminds people that he toiled many years at a McDonald's and spent one summer as a garbage collector. "I'm not a very smart person," Card says. "I have to work really hard at remembering things." Which explains the deceptively prosaic tour of the Cards' Arlington kitchen. Card rarely takes notes. He does not make to-do lists or scrawl reminders to himself on Post-its. Instead, he keeps much of the Bush White House in his head, or in his kitchen. This is where it gets eccentric for everyman Andy Card.

Andrew Card is chronically there -- as in there in the room, in the meeting, in the photo, on the Sunday shows. (Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)

Card is a student of memory. He practices a technique pioneered by Matteo Ricci, a 16th-century Italian Jesuit. Ricci, who did missionary work in China, introduced the notion of a "memory palace" to Confucian scholars. The "memory palace" is a structure of the mind, to be furnished with mnemonic devices. Ricci might construct an imaginary palace room for each of his students -- filled with furniture and shelves to represent aspects of that student (a painting to express his appearance, a shelf on which to array his scholastic record).

Memory is central to a chief of staff's job. He must possess enough instant knowledge to execute the president's minute-to-minute pursuits, be it macro (his agenda) or micro (when he's due for a haircut). Brad Blakeman, a former White House scheduler, says it's not uncommon to have someone ask where the president will be on a certain date three months in the future and have Card answer precisely. "He knew the president's schedule a lot better than me," Blakeman says, "and I was the scheduler."

While Ricci used a palace, castle or other elaborate edifice, Card's palace is his mental kitchen. Every Monday morning when he arrives at the White House, Card performs the ritual of "cleaning my kitchen."

"I view my job as being responsible for the president to have everything he needs to do his job," Card says. "So when I clean my kitchen, it's really about anticipating what it is the president will have to do, what kind of help he will need to do it and when it has to be done."

When tackling matters of top priority, Card stands at the stove, working his "front and back burners." Intelligence reform is cooking this morning. He needs to call several people: 9/11 Commission Chairmen Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, Reps. Duncan Hunter and James Sensenbrenner, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. They are "on my right front burner," he says.

"Then I shift gears to my left front burner, which is second most important," Card says. He will help the president hire a Cabinet secretary, then move to his right rear burner (hiring White House staff for the second term). "I do that all in my kitchen," Card says. "Now the things I want to put off for a long time, I put in the freezer. But then I can go to my freezer and generally remember things that I put there a long time ago." He will store matters that were resolved or tabled yesterday in a cupboard.

"If you go see Andy at his desk, it looks like he's not doing anything," says Andrew Natsios, a close friend of Card's who is head of the Agency for International Development. "It's almost empty, there's no paper anywhere. But he's created this whole system in his head with this mind discipline of his."

So much institutional history and memory of both Bush administrations is stored in Andy Card's kitchen. He has been as entrenched in Bushworld as the family furniture. He is chronically there -- as in there in the room, in the meeting, in the photo, on the Sunday shows. Card was there, next to Bush One when he vomited on the Japanese prime minister, there in the Oval when Bushes One and Two choked up together on Inauguration Day 2001, and there, in Bush Two's ear as he read "My Pet Goat" on 9/11.

He wakes at 4:20 each morning, commonly stays at work until 10 p.m. and spends most weekends at his office or at Camp David with the POTUS.

He wears his fatigue proudly, advertises his minimal sleep regimen, mentions what bad shape he's in, how he drinks too much coffee and that he needs to spend more time with family -- three grown children, four grandchildren and wife Kathleene, a Methodist minister, whom he met when both were in the fifth grade. In 2003, he passed out during a three-mile run with the president in Crawford, Tex.

Does his fatigue make it harder for Card to remember things? He shakes his head: "My kitchen is in order," Card says, "though I may not be."

Card loves to doodle, a rare indulgence of paper for him. "I am almost always doodling," he says. He can look at old doodles and recall where he was when he drew them, what meeting he was in and what was decided. They are his de facto notes.

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