A Palpable Silence at the White House

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By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 21, 2005

At 7:30 each morning, President Bush's senior staff gathers to discuss the important issues of the day -- Middle East peace, the Harriet Miers nomination, the latest hurricane bearing down on the coast. Everything, that is, except the issue on everyone's mind.

With special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald driving his CIA leak investigation toward an apparent conclusion, the White House now confronts the looming prospect that no one in the building is eager to address: a Bush presidency without Karl Rove. In a capital consumed by scandal speculation, most White House senior officials are no more privy than outsiders to the prosecutor's intentions. But the surreal silence in the Roosevelt Room each morning belies the nervous discussions racing elsewhere around the West Wing.

Out of the hushed hallway encounters and one-on-one conversations, several scenarios have begun to emerge if Rove or vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis Libby is indicted and forced out. Senior GOP officials are developing a public relations strategy to defend those accused of crimes and, more importantly, shield Bush from further damage, according to Republicans familiar with the plans. And to help steady a shaken White House, they say, the president might bring in trusted advisers such as budget director Joshua B. Bolten, lobbyist Ed Gillespie or party chairman Ken Mehlman.

These tentative discussions come at a time when White House senior officials are exploring staff changes to address broader structural problems that have bedeviled Bush's second term, according to Republicans who said they could speak candidly about internal deliberations only if they are not named. But it remains unclear whether Bush agrees that changes are needed and the uncertainty has unsettled his team.

"People are very demoralized and unhappy," a former administration official said. "The leak investigation is [part of it], but things were not happy before this took preeminence. It's just been a rough year. A lot has gotten done, but nothing is easy."

Bush implicitly acknowledged the distractions in answer to a reporter's question during a Rose Garden appearance with visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday, while reassuring the public that he remained focused on the pressing matters of state facing his White House.

"There's some background noise here, a lot of chatter, a lot of speculation and opining," Bush said. "But the American people expect me to do my job, and I'm going to."

For a president and a White House accustomed to controlling their political circumstances in a one-party town, the culmination of the leak investigation represents another in a string of events beyond their grasp. Like Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq war and rising gasoline prices, there is little at the moment that Bush strategists can do to alter the political equation.

But the road that led them to this moment is paved with potholes that Bush aides privately concede they could have avoided, and many Republicans are examining the situation for deeper issues to address. From the failed effort to restructure Social Security to the uproar over the Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, Bush's second-term operation has been far more prone to mistakes than his first.

In the view of many Republicans, fatigue may be one factor affecting the once smooth-running White House. Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. gets up each day at 4:20 a.m., arrives at his office a little over an hour later, gets home between 8:30 and 9 p.m. and often still takes calls after that; he has been in his pressure-cooker job since Bush was inaugurated, longer than any chief of staff in decades. "He looks totally burned out," a Republican strategist said.

Others, including Rove, Bolten, counselor Dan Bartlett, senior adviser Michael J. Gerson and press secretary Scott McClellan, have been running at full tilt since 1999, when the Bush team began gearing up in Austin for the first campaign.

At the same time, the innermost circle has shrunk in the second term, mainly to Vice President Cheney, Card, Rove, Bartlett, Libby and, on foreign policy issues, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Aides who joined the White House staff after last year's reelection, such as communications director Nicolle Devenish (who now goes by her married name, Nicolle Wallace), domestic policy adviser Claude Allen and political director Sara Taylor, have brought fresh perspectives and earned Bush's trust but do not share the long history with him that he values.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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