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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 11 Style article incorrectly said that Clay Johnson, the former head of personnel in the White House, and President Bush were friends from Midland, Tex. The two became friends while attending boarding school and college together.

Dina Powell, the West Wing's Hire Power

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page C01

In Dina Powell's nicely appointed West Wing office there are two boxes.

One is silver, intricately crafted, and sits atop a table. She will let you admire it and readily talk about how she bought it on a return visit to Cairo, where she was born to middle-class Egyptians who came to Dallas for a better life.

White House personnel chief Dina Powell with the president and vice president in the Oval Office. (Paul Morse -- The White House)

The other, sturdy and squat, sits on the floor. She won't say much about it, except to laugh and allow "it can come in handy." It is a safe, for locking up files.

Powell is the president's headhunter, charged with filling hundreds of jobs in the next several weeks -- ambassadors, Cabinet heads, undersecretaries, commissioners. She is the soul of discretion. What's in the safe? Forget it.

Those new people tramping the corridors of federal power will have left some part of themselves with Powell, who at 31 is the youngest person ever to direct the presidential personnel office and its roughly 35 employees.

These appointees, if they are high enough in the hierarchy, will have perched on the edge of her upholstered "interview chair" -- she prefers the gold couch, beneath the large photographs of President Bush. At the very least, some paper part of them will have passed through her hands. Right now, there are about 100,000 résumés in the office's database. During Christmas, guests to the White House parties could stroll by and have a little schmooze with her.

"It's the largest fire hydrant to drink out of in all of Washington," says G. Calvin Mackenzie, a presidential historian at Colby College who specializes in the personnel office. "It's the center of a political maelstrom all the time. There are more than 4,000 jobs" to be filled with each new presidency, "and each one is a little drama of its very own. You have to have a thick skin, to work very hard, and more importantly than anything, you have to have the ear of the president."

About this, Powell will say only that she meets with the president "regularly." In this disciplined White House, there are usually only four people, outside the legal vetters, who know which people have gotten the nod -- Bush, Vice President Cheney, political adviser Karl Rove and Powell. Asked if Powell simply prepares the paperwork or actually makes recommendations on hiring, Office of Management and Budget director Josh Bolten says, "Both."

"It's not at all a case that she collects a few things," says Bolten. "She is the quarterback of the whole process." Margaret Spellings, the domestic policy adviser tapped to become education secretary, who sits beside Powell every morning at the senior staff meeting, dismisses any suggestion that all appointments are masterminded by Rove. "Oh, my gosh, even if you believed that," says Spellings, "there's just too much work. If Karl Rove had to do everything that is attributed to him, we would have to change our policy on cloning."

The pressure on the White House personnel person comes from "above and below and from the side," says George Mason University professor James Pfiffner, author of "The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running." "You can't afford to be dismissive, but you have to explain why the favorite nephew of a certain congressman isn't qualified to be secretary of defense."

On this subject, Powell smiles and says: "We're not short on recommendations."

The process of identifying, then hiring, presidential talent requires "all kinds of research and a lot of discipline," says Clay Johnson, the president's old friend from Midland, Tex., who first handled personnel during the truncated transition in 2000 and then was Powell's boss until January 2003, when she succeeded him. "You cannot lapse into 'Do I like this person?' It's about the job specifications. Everything you do must be first class, showing tremendous respect. But you must tell them, 'You won't get as much credit. You won't get as much money. You must be comfortable with being told no a lot. You aren't going to be able to have your own way.' " That is a difficult transition for many corporate executives to make.

Powell, says Johnson, understands all of this. "She has really good radar," he says.

She has a talent for being warm and gregarious while staying completely disciplined. She insists that an hour-long interview be on background, with quotes needing to be approved prior to publication. Even in this format, she reveals not a single confidence or telling detail of the way she works.

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