The Sideman

Josh Bolten listens as President Bush announces his White House appointment in March.
Josh Bolten listens as President Bush announces his White House appointment in March. (Pool - Getty Images)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Josh Bolten, chief of staff to the president, is like that guy who grew up small-town and stayed small-town, except the town in this case is Washington, and Bolten's job is gatekeeper to the most powerful man in the world.

His favorite restaurant is the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, a place he frequented more than 30 years ago. He still plays in a rock band, as he did decades ago. And -- after a 30-something-year intermission -- he is even dating the same woman he dated as a teen.

If there are two Washingtons -- the transient political town, filled with folks who leave after two or four or eight years, and the sleepier Southern town of civil servants and families who've put down roots -- Bolten, 52, belongs to both. He grew up steeped in the intellectual guts of this city, the son of a CIA official and a history instructor. He is a Washingtonian -- and proud of it -- in an administration that invokes "Washington" like a dirty word.

Bolten's live-in girlfriend, Dede McClure, that same woman from high school, calls him "the nation's number one government wonk." Politics don't get him excited the way public policy does. He is the quintessence of the reliable Washington bureaucrat, elevated to the top staff job in the White House. When you consider Bolten's life, what stands out is the way he has stayed in place -- stayed so very Washington.

McClure calls him "steady as the rocks" of a shoreline she saw this summer in Massachusetts. She invokes ancient Chinese philosophy, saying there's something "Tao" about those rocks, immovable but smoothed by time. Which makes you wonder: Is there such a thing as a Tao of Josh Bolten? Is the president's chief of staff even permitted to have a Tao?

And if so, does Josh Bolten embody the true wonkiness of Washington's soul?

Coming of Age

Bolten grew up in a political home. He and his older brother and younger sister knew influential elections expert Richard Scammon as "Uncle Dick." Their dad, the late Seymour Bolten, was a conservative intellectual who had monthly wine tastings with friends like Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The split-level on Daniel Lane off Rock Creek Park in Northwest was host to a lot of debates. When Josh brought friends home, Seymour -- alternately gruff and kindly-- quizzed them about their views on current events.

"Over many meals we discussed the whole gamut" of political issues, says Josh's high school friend Calvert Jones, whose views were more liberal than Seymour's. "I loved that man. . . . He made me think."

Seymour had fought with the Army in World War II, had been captured in North Africa and imprisoned in Poland, and then went to work for the CIA on the operations side. He rarely spoke about what he did there, though Bolten's sister, Susanna Connaughton, says he worked some years undercover. Josh was instructed to tell friends his dad worked for the Defense Department.

Josh's mom, whom he's called the smartest person he has known, finished her college degree while Susanna, the youngest, was growing up, and went on to earn a PhD. While studying, Stacy Bolten also taught European and world history at George Washington University. She kept an Oxford English Dictionary on a stand near the kitchen and was constantly consulting it to resolve questions that came up in conversation.

"She has a mind like a steel trap," says Jones, who boarded at the prep school Josh attended, St. Albans in Northwest, and for whom the Boltens were like second family. "You could pick a word out of the dictionary and she would tell you the history of the word."

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