Senior White House Staff May Be Wearing Down

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006

Andrew H. Card Jr. wakes at 4:20 in the morning, shows up at the White House an hour or so later, convenes his senior staff at 7:30 and then proceeds to a blur of other meetings that do not let up until long after the sun sets. He gets home at 9 or 10 at night and sometimes fields phone calls until 11 p.m. Then he gets up and does it all over again.

Of all the reasons that President Bush is in trouble these days, not to be overlooked are inadequate REM cycles. Like chief of staff Card, many of the president's top aides have been by his side nonstop for more than five years, not including the first campaign, recount and transition. This is a White House, according to insiders, that is physically and emotionally exhausted, battered by scandal and drained by political setbacks.

"By the time you get to year six, there's never a break . . . and you get tired," said Ed Rollins, who served five years in President Ronald Reagan's White House. "There's always a crisis. It wears you down. This has been a White House that hasn't really had much change at all. There is a fatigue factor that builds up. You sometimes don't see the crisis approaching. You're not as on guard as you once were."

To Rollins, the uproar over an Arab-owned firm taking over management of some American ports represents a classic example. Bush and his staff did not know about the arrangement approved by his administration, and after congressional Republicans revolted, issued an ineffective veto threat that only exacerbated the dispute, which climaxed with the collapse of the deal last week. "This White House would not have made this mistake two years ago," Rollins said.

Bush's problems go beyond the fatigue factor. An unpopular foreign war, high energy prices and the nation's worst natural disaster in decades have dragged his poll ratings down to the lowest level of any second-term president, other than Richard M. Nixon, in the last half-century. Lately it seems to many in the White House that they cannot catch a break -- insurgents blow up a holy shrine in Iraq, tipping the country toward civil war; Vice President Cheney accidentally shoots a hunting partner; a former top Bush adviser is arrested on theft charges.

But at a time when Bush needs his staff to be sharp to help steer past these political shoals and find ways to turn things around, he still has the same core group working since he turned his sights toward the White House. That group includes Card, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, senior adviser Michael J. Gerson, counselor Dan Bartlett, budget director Joshua B. Bolten, press secretary Scott McClellan and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

The succession of crisis after crisis has taken its toll. Some in the White House sound frazzled. While there are few stories of aides nodding off in meetings, some duck outside during the day so the fresh air will wake them up. "We're all burned out," said one White House official who did not want to be named for fear of angering superiors. "People are just tired."

White House officials are never genuinely away from the job. Tied to their BlackBerrys and cellular telephones, they are often called to duty even during rare vacations. Weekends are often just another workday. Hadley, for one, schedules a full day of meetings every Saturday. Card comes to the White House on days off to go bicycle riding with Bush.

While other professions demand 14-hour days and six- or seven-day weeks, few involve as much consequence, much less the intense scrutiny of the Internet age. A former Bush aide said, "You don't really realize until you're gone" just how exhausting it really is.

For the record, White House officials reject the suggestion that exhaustion has dulled their political instincts or contributed to the spate of trouble. "People work very, very hard," said White House communications director Nicolle Wallace, and "I'd be lying to say that there aren't some people on some days" who are weary. But "the other side of being here six years is incredible wisdom and steadiness and experience." Moreover, she added, "there's been enough turnover that there's new energy."

Any discussion of the fatigue factor in Republican circles invariably turns to Card, a low-key, self-effacing and well-liked Washington veteran who has been managing Bush's White House team since three weeks after the November 2000 election. Card brought considerable experience to the task, having worked in the Reagan White House, then serving President George H.W. Bush as deputy White House chief of staff and later transportation secretary.

In his current role, Card has proved to be a marathon man, capable of enduring the most brutal hours in perhaps the most brutal job in Washington for longer than anyone in modern times. Only one other person has served as White House chief of staff longer, Sherman Adams, the top aide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a far less frenetic, wired era. And if Card makes it to Nov. 1, he will surpass Adams's record, according to the Eisenhower library.

Card retains enormous respect inside and outside the White House, but some Republicans whisper about his judgment in the ill-fated selection of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court and the handling of Hurricane Katrina, to name two examples. Card declined to be interviewed, but has publicly dismissed concerns that his schedule has sapped his energy.

"All my life I have worked kind of this schedule," he told C-SPAN last fall. "When I was in college, I delivered newspapers early in the morning and worked at McDonald's late at night. So even when I was in high school, I would get up in the morning and get the newspapers ready for the paper boys early in the morning. So I've had this kind of lifestyle of early-to-bed and early-to-rise -- and so far seem to be doing pretty well."

Speculation among Republicans that Card would leave at the beginning of the year proved false or premature. Bush has resisted emulating Reagan, who brought in a fresh team led by Howard H. Baker Jr. when his second term was threatened by the Iran-contra scandal. Reagan and Clinton accepted Washington figures outside their own circles, and each had four chiefs of staff during their tenures. Bush emphasizes loyalty and surrounds himself mainly with people he knows.

Many Republicans were struck by the relative lack of ambition of Bush's State of the Union address, a program including alternative energy research, science education funding and health care tax breaks but nothing of the scope of last year's plan to reinvent Social Security. But some saw that as a reasonable response to the death of the Social Security effort, a recognition that it would be hard to enact dramatic domestic initiatives in a time of war. Others wondered if the White House was running out of ideas.

Grover G. Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and an adviser to Rove, said he thinks the situation owes not to fatigue but to political realism at the White House. "What they don't have are unreasonable expectations of what can be moved through Congress," he said. "It's not a question of coming up with new ideas. Sometimes you just don't have the votes."

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