Bringing Evolution, Not Revolution
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Joshua B. Bolten doesn't find it fun to say no. He once called himself a "softer person" than his predecessor as White House budget chief.
But he has found his own ways to make a point. He shows up at policy meetings with a giant calculator to add up the cost of anyone's ambitious ideas. And when someone strays off course, he throws a yellow penalty flag onto the conference table like a football referee.
Now it has fallen on this dry-witted Washington native to get the White House itself back on course. Tapped by President Bush yesterday to replace White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Bolten will take over a political operation gone astray -- mired in an overseas war, stalled in its domestic agenda, sagging in the polls and alienated from congressional Republican allies.
Like Card, Bolten is a Bush loyalist, known as self-effacing and efficient, not especially ideological, not a promoter of his own agenda, a quiet professional in a town filled with vast egos. Yet this workaholic bachelor and self-described "policy geek" in glasses is the picture of contradictions. Bolten, 51, spends his few off-hours racing down the highway on his prized Harley-Davidson Fat Boy or bowling in the White House alley or banging out tunes in a rock band he named Deficit Attention Disorder.
His office in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House attests to his personality. Rather than stock it with pictures of Bush, as many aides do, Bolten hung a large portrait of Eisenhower in military uniform above the fireplace and put a Harley-Davidson book on the mantle. Nearby is a motorcycle menorah. Not one to take himself too seriously, Bolten even hung a drawing by a niece that a visitor recalled was titled "Uncle Josh's Poop Calendar."
"He is very funny, he always kept the staff laughing," said Assistant Secretary of State Kristen Silverberg, who worked for Bolten during the 2000 presidential campaign and Bush's first term. At the same time, she said, "Josh has a great moral core" and a passion for bold ideas. "If you had to pick one person who was the architect of all the big first-term domestic policy initiatives," it would be Bolten.
Karl Rove, Bush's political adviser, said Bolten will reinvigorate the White House.
"People get energized -- new leadership has a way of doing that," Rove said. "He has strong views, but he is very adept at not allowing them to short-circuit a robust policy process." Bolten encourages aides to propose ideas he disagrees with, Rove added. "He would challenge them to think outside the box."
Yet Bolten was hardly an outside-the-box choice. He is not the Washington graybeard many Republicans urged Bush to recruit. By most accounts, Bolten will bring evolution, not revolution. Within hours of his appointment, talking points distributed among Democrats described his selection as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
"He strikes me as pretty much cut from the same bolt as Andy Card, so I don't see this as a shift by the White House, replacing one insider with another," said Rep. John Spratt (S.C.), ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. But Spratt expressed "high regard" for Bolten: "He's bright, a quick study, yet cool and unflappable."
The son of a career CIA officer and a George Washington University teacher, Joshua Brewster Bolten grew up in Washington, attending public schools until enrolling at St. Albans for high school. After earning degrees at Princeton University and Stanford Law School, Bolten returned to Washington to work as a lawyer at the State Department and the Senate Finance Committee.
"He has this ethic of public service in his bones," said Daniel Price, a longtime friend.