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A Palpable Silence at the White House

Many allies blame the insularity of his team for recent missteps, such as the Miers nomination. Even some sympathetic to her believe the vetting process broke down because as White House counsel she was so well known to the president that skeptical questions were not asked.

Some GOP officials outside the White House say they believe the president rejects the idea that there is anything fundamentally wrong with his presidency; others express concern that Bush has strayed so far from where he intended to be that it may require drastic action.

At the heart of all those discussions is Rove. With the deceptive title of deputy chief of staff, Rove runs much of the White House, including its guiding political strategy and many of its central policy initiatives. "Karl is the central nervous system right now, and that's obviously a big thing -- not only politically, but now he's in that big policy job," a former White House official said.

At the White House and among its close allies, discussion about Rove's fate is verboten -- in part out of fear and in part out of ignorance about what his legal vulnerability actually is. No one in the White House wants to talk about an indictment. As another former official said, "No one wants to believe anything's going to happen." Nor do people easily discuss other staff changes. "Anyone who talks about that kind of stuff should be shot," said a third Republican with close ties to the White House.

But, this Republican noted, "I am sure Karl and the president talk about it." And the assumption is Rove could not stay if indicted.

Without Rove, Bush likely would need more than one person to take his place, according to people close to the White House. Bolten, who served as deputy chief of staff in the first term and now heads the Office of Management and Budget, is widely deemed a savvy policy master who could assume a broader role. Gillespie, who shepherded the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and advises Miers, had hoped to extricate himself even from this assignment, but colleagues said he would be a logical person to bring in for political strategy.

Mehlman, who was White House political director before becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been a key adviser, although some colleagues worry that bringing in the party chief might send too political a message. Some close to the White House suggest Clay Johnson III, the deputy budget director who was Bush's chief of staff in the Texas governor's office, could be part of a reconstituted team. Attention has also focused on former White House counselor Karen P. Hughes, but she was just confirmed by the Senate as undersecretary of state and seems unlikely to leave.

Some strategists said Bush could accommodate the loss if he had to. "When Karen Hughes left, a lot of people said she's indispensable and impossible to replace and it might hurt the president in an election year," said Charles R. Black, a GOP lobbyist who advises the White House. "But Dan Bartlett and others stepped up, and no one missed a beat."

Mehlman said the president's problems would eventually be overshadowed by his broader agenda. "It's a mistake to allow the political headline of the moment to obscure the overall progress being made on a lot of important fronts," he said. "We're about to have a big debate about taxing and spending. Those are debates where we historically have done well and will this time."

Another former administration official said the key to the future for the White House will be restoring unity within the party. "Everyone in the Republican Party needs to figure out how to stick together and get things done in a constructive manner," he said. "That hides all sorts of fault lines."

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.

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