First Buddy

By Libby Copeland and Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Andrew Card didn't lose a job yesterday, he made a friend.

"Mr. President, as the chief of staff, I know I was a staffer," Card said yesterday in his resignation speech, "and now I look forward to being your friend."

The bright line between working for the president and being friends with the president has always been a big deal to Card, who is known for being enthusiastically humble. He liked to emphasize the "staff" in his title, rather than the "chief." In an interview on C-SPAN last year (in which he twice called himself "just a staffer") Card said he fought a "great temptation" to become buddies with the leader of the free world.

This, it turns out, is a White House occupational hazard.

"It's always easy to assume a friendship that's not helpful because you're with the president so closely in so many tense situations -- it's like being in a foxhole together," says Marlin Fitzwater, who served as press secretary to Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush. "On airplanes, in holding rooms, getting ready to make a speech, late at night, early in the morning, when everyone's tired, and in a lot of human settings."

The human element always makes things messy. Presidential staffers have to remind themselves they serve the office as much as an individual. The president is always "Mr. President" unless one happens to be the first lady. To this day, Mack McLarty, Bill Clinton's first chief of staff, still calls his boyhood friend and former kindergarten classmate "Mr. President," even in private.

When he became president, Jimmy Carter insisted that the friends who followed him to the White House still call him "Jimmy," says Gerald Rafshoon, who served two years in the administration as communications director. Rafshoon, who had served Carter when he was governor of Georgia, demurred.

He also struggled with just how to speak to his "friend," after vowing to himself that he would give Carter unfiltered advice.

"Once I got to the Oval Office, the atmosphere was such that I was intimidated," Rafshoon says. "If there were other people there, I would come back later."

The distinction between friend and Mr. President is more than semantic, as many who have served at the pleasure of presidents can testify. There's a respectful distance not only in the Oval Office, but during dinner with the president and his family, says former George H.W. Bush aide Mary Matalin. This protects the president -- and his staff, too.

"There are times when you have to be an SOB on behalf of the president," says Leon Panetta, who served as Clinton's chief of staff for 2 1/2 years. "It helps to have that professional distance."

A staffer who's not properly deferential, who doesn't emphasize the professional over the personal, risks assuming power he doesn't have, or not giving the president frank advice, or being surprised when the president decides his assistance is no longer needed.

Case in point: the late Don Regan, Reagan's imperious chief of staff, whom some used to call the "prime minister." Regan feuded with the first lady (once hanging up on her) and was said to have stormed out of the White House after learning he'd lost his job. Nancy Reagan later wrote that Regan, a former Merrill Lynch CEO, "often acted as if he were the president."

As a staffer, "you're always deferential, meaning you're not the decision-maker, meaning you don't take credit for decisions," Fitzwater says. "Don Regan had trouble with those things."

Card, who served for almost six years before being replaced yesterday by White House budget chief Joshua Bolten, never had that kind of trouble. He often reminds people about the lowfalutin jobs he has held: at a McDonald's in Columbia, S.C. (rising as high as night manager), and one summer as a sanitation worker near his home town of Holbrook, Mass. He romanticizes the work to underscore the importance of getting dirty jobs done, be it on a garbage truck or in the White House.

As for President Bush, he's always liked loyalists -- people like Card, whose ambitions are tied wholly to the president's own success. He and Card and their wives have known one another for more than 20 years. If the men haven't been friends, exactly, they've had about as close a nonfriendship as a boss and an employee can have.

"I worry about the care and feeding of the president," Card said last year in the C-SPAN interview. "I greet him first thing in the morning and I say good night to him when he goes off to go home for the night. He probably sees much more of me than he wants to."

Then Card added, in what sounds like a strange distinction to anyone who doesn't understand the relationship between the president and a chief of staff: "The president is my friend and I do not want to let him down. But I am not his friend, I am a staffer."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company