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Players: Pete Wehner

Resident Thinker Given Free Rein In White House

Official Promotes Role of Ideas in Politics

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page A19

Pete Wehner has the rarest of White House jobs. He is paid to read, to think, to prod, to brainstorm -- all without accountability. He recalls the words of White House senior adviser Karl Rove when he interviewed for the job: "He said my job is to bug him."

Wehner runs the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives (or the Office of Strategery, as it is known inside the building after a "Saturday Night Live" skit spoofing the president's mangling of the English language). The OSI was Rove's idea, created shortly after President Bush was elected in 2000. It is the smallest unit in the Rove empire, with six employees, and represents the closest thing the White House has to an in-house think tank.

Pete Wehner says he believes President Bush is on the right side of history and of important current issues. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

Pete Wehner

Title: Deputy assistant to the president/director, Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Washington.

Age: 43.

Family: Married; three children.

Career highlights: Speechwriter for the secretary of education (William J. Bennett), January 1987 to September 1988; special assistant to the director, Office of National Drug Control Policy (Bennett), March 1989 to December 1990; research fellow, the Hudson Institute, December 1990 to March 1993; director for policy, Empower America, March 1993 to January 2001; special assistant to the president/deputy director for speechwriting, 2001 to 2002.

Current reading: "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," by Natan Sharansky et al; "Scalia Dissents: Writings from the Supreme Court's Wittiest, Most Outspoken Justice," by Kevin A. Ring; "Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House," by William Safire; "The Cross of Christ," by John R.W. Stott.

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The office, tucked away on the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, conducts research on the presidency -- looking for historical patterns or analogies to guide the administration's strategic thinking. A current folder on Wehner's desk is labeled: "2d Term/Analysis." It is a compendium of how other presidents often went wrong in their second terms, history Bush hopes not to repeat.

But Wehner also takes Rove's words literally, peppering Rove and other White House officials with e-mails and memos analyzing current trends, highlighting issues that may be ripening or framing arguments to advance the president's policies. Recent works include an analysis of the 2004 election and a memo reflecting on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's comments about freedom, democracy and the Middle East.

Wehner also examined why the 43rd president of the United States has become such a polarizing political figure, after having arrived in Washington with a promise to unite the country and change the tone in Washington. "My view, as I read history, is that almost all consequential figures -- political figures -- are polarizing figures," he said, because they are bold and tackle significant issues.

He ticks off other political figures he says were polarizing, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher. After 2000, Bush's opponents expected a milquetoast president, Wehner said, but instead they got someone who liked to swing for the fences.

Running the OSI is Wehner's second job in the Bush White House, after having started in 2001 as deputy to chief speechwriter Michael Gerson. Wehner came to Washington in 1983 as an intern from the University of Washington and never left, lured into the world of ideas and think tanks. He eventually finished his degree by correspondence courses.

Near the end of the Reagan presidency, he landed a job with then-Education Secretary William J. Bennett after writing an op-ed piece in the Washington Times analyzing the Bennett agenda. He arrived in his office the morning the column appeared to find a message that Bennett had called. "I tried to be clever on the phone," Wehner said. "I don't think I was."

Bennett offered him a job anyway, and Wehner later moved with Bennett to the White House drug control policy office during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and then stayed with the conservative polemicist and provocateur in the private sector. Wehner eventually returned to government, drawn by his desire to see whether conservative governance in Washington could be more than a theory.

Quiet and soft-spoken, he works in a spacious office surrounded by bookcases crammed to overflowing with volumes from his own library. Married, with three young children, he arrives early -- often by 5:30 a.m. -- in order to be home for dinner by 6:30 p.m. He stays in close touch with conservative thinkers and prods, gently, writers and columnists as he tries to make the case for the administration's policies.

"Pete really believes in the power of ideas in American politics," Gerson said. "It's the reason he takes such care to make arguments. There are plenty of people at the White House who write talking points. There are very few who make sustained arguments. He doesn't overstate, and his arguments have a lot of integrity."

He is known in the circle of conservative writers and think-tank analysts, but is little known to the wider world compared with White House luminaries such as Rove or national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. But Wehner has the ability to highlight and put into discussion ideas, arguments and issues by the power of his arguments and by his connections.

"One reason Pete really is important is that he has very close relations with both Karl and Mike, and that's two of the five or six most important people in the Bush White House," said William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard, who worked with Wehner at the Education Department.

A small picture of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby hangs near Wehner's desk. He practically memorized many of Kennedy's speeches, listening to tapes of them when he was younger, and as he described his office, Wehner recalled a quotation from Kennedy in January 1960. The president, Kennedy said, "must reopen channels of communication between the world of thought and the seat of power."

Wehner said he hopes that one legacy of the OSI will be the inculcation of "intellectual seriousness" in the White House.

"I'm not sure you can leave that for another [administration], but this should be an office that engages ideas in a serious way, that approaches criticisms in an intellectually honest way," he said.

Given those ambitions, Wehner was asked whether he finds it ironic or is infuriated that Bush is stereotyped, fairly or not, as a president who is not interested in ideas and is not intellectually curious. "I'm not," he said, "because in the end, the truth wills out."

Bush is changing the political and intellectual landscape, Wehner argued, ticking off the president's education policy that has asserted a strong federal role from a conservative perspective, as well as the concept of compassionate conservatism. Personal savings accounts for Social Security represent another break with conventional thinking.

On foreign policy, he cited Bush's controversial doctrine of preemption -- noting that, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Kennedy articulated a similar doctrine. Wehner said Bush's determination to spread democracy to the Middle East represents a break with decades of thinking about that region.

"You can't judge those things in real time," Wehner said. "You have to wait and let history make its judgment -- and reality take hold." He argued that Reagan was judged harshly during his presidency but since has been treated more favorably -- and he believes the same will hold for Bush. Wehner said: "I think he's on the right side of history and is on the right side of the important debates of our time, and he's comfortable in that."

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