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The Sideman
In Government as in Music, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten Is Happy to Provide Unobtrusive, but Steady, Backup

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."

Born in 1954, Josh was a reserved, serious boy. He developed his father's conservatism and love for political debate and his mother's appreciation of history and the study of words. He kept what his sister calls a "meticulous" stamp collection. In sixth grade, his brother, Randy, says, Josh was named "outstanding safety patrol boy" for his "reliability."

Josh had his bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation where he still observes the Jewish high holy days. In high school at St. Albans, where he went after attending public schools, one peer watched Josh make a speech and wondered at his almost "corporate presence." He was preternaturally polished and polite. He spoke in even tones.

"You had to pull him out of his shell," Jones says. "At first blush, he was serious, standoffish. He'd choose his words very carefully. He was very proper."

Josh attended St. Albans during the late '60s and early '70s, and his peers were the sons of Washington's political and power classes. Their fathers included President Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and Republican Sen. Charles Percy. The students were groomed for big things. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) was two years behind Josh at St. Albans, presidential brother Neil Bush was one year behind, and Al Gore was seven years ahead.

It was a time of experimentation. Washington was smoldering from its race riots, and antiwar protests erupted in the city. The turtleneck became permitted school dress at St. Albans, provided it was worn under a sport coat. Boys sprouted long hair and in the yearbook they listed "witchcraft," "females" and "burning out" as their interests. Some kids smoked pot, though friends say Josh's interests were tamer.

"We spent a lot of time mixing different fruit juices to see what we could come up with," says high school friend Nick Coward, who is still close to Josh.

Josh was student council president and active in the school's government club as a conservative at a time when, as former St. Albans history teacher Jack McCune puts it, conservatism wasn't "terribly fashionable." He kept his hair short, judging from yearbook photos. A small guy, he wrestled in the 119-pound weight class, played lightweight football, and was good-natured about his "lack of prowess," says McCune, who doubled as a football coach. He studied classical guitar and started a band called Soft Rock. In the 1972 yearbook, he chose a Confucius quote about the perils of "thought without learning."

Josh's friends say public service seemed to be his calling ever since those days in student council. After going to Princeton and then getting a law degree at Stanford, he worked in the public sector, including in legislative affairs for the George H.W. Bush administration. He spent five years at Goldman Sachs in London, and when he'd visit Washington he and his sister would organize bowling outings to get family and friends together.

"He was never particularly happy at Goldman," Coward says. "I think his public service jobs have always been much more intellectually stimulating for him."

Bolten has been with the current administration since the beginning, first working on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, then as deputy White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget before moving into the current post. In a C-SPAN interview last year, Bolten called himself a "policy wonk" and said that when the president offered him the budget director job, he feared he was neither tough nor confrontational enough. He said the job had forced him to say no a lot.

"I've tried to say no in as courteous a way as possible," he said.

He also said he tried to operate "below the radar screen," avoiding publicity most of the time, and praised the civil servants in his office for not leaking stories to the media.

Bolten's friends say he has a self-deprecating sense of humor, and in public appearances there are hints of playfulness. He has made reference (in somewhat unwonky fashion) to the White House getting its "mojo" back. The band he plays bass guitar in, ordinarily called the Compassionates, once played under the name Deficit Attention Disorder when Bolten was budget chief.

He also does voice impressions. "He does do a really good Henry Kissinger," says McClure, his girlfriend.

He rides motorcycles. In the C-SPAN interview he called them "exhilarating" but followed up with the caution of a driver's ed teacher.

"If you're not concentrating properly when you're riding a motorcycle," he told the interviewer somberly, "you're putting your life in danger."

Bolten does few interviews, and he wouldn't sit for this Washington Post story, though he did agree to fact-check outstanding questions by e-mail. Among other things, he confirmed that he lives with McClure in Bethesda and that "the Tastee" really is his favorite restaurant. (Afterward he wrote, polite but steadfast to the end: "I was tempted to reverse my longstanding policy of not participating in personal profiles [except for alumni publications] -- but not quite.")

In years to come, when the White House has new occupants, and fair-weather Hill staffers have gone on to law school, and several more generations of newly minted political-science grads have descended on the city like summer cicadas, the Josh Boltens will no doubt still be here. What would Washington be without men of this sort -- the steady, the sturdy, the sort who wait 30 years to get the girl, and study all food labels carefully before making supermarket purchases?

Harmonized Lives

In sixth grade, Bolten and Maury Abraham, lifelong friends, had a band called the Ocelots. ("Everybody was naming 'em after animals," Abraham says.) The group disbanded, and then in high school, Abraham and Bolten and some other friends formed another band called Soft Rock, and this one stuck around for several years. This was before the phrase "soft rock" was, as Abraham puts it, "a generic term for elevator Muzak." Soft Rock was folk music with some jazz influence.

One night during Bolten's senior year, Abraham and another band member went to a coffeehouse in the basement of a church and heard a girl with long, dark hair singing in an angelic voice. They followed her home to her apartment on Connecticut Avenue, begging her to join the band. She was 14; Josh was 17. Her name was Dede Thompson back then. They started dating months later, but because of "my age and Josh's respectfulness," it stayed "sweetly platonic," McClure says.

Late nights, the band members hung out at the Tastee. They had dreams. A guy in Potomac with a recording studio in his basement helped them put out an album of songs with titles like "Conversation of Love" and "Sunshine." To pay the cost of the thousand or so vinyl copies, Soft Rock played cover songs at bar mitzvahs and parties. Some of Bolten's band mates tried to persuade him to put off Princeton for a year and stick with Soft Rock, and Bolten went so far as to propose the idea to his dad.

"I'm not even sure that words were exchanged after that," McClure says. "It may have been just enough that Seymour gave him a look."

Herewith, 30 years and a love story, dispatched with bureaucratic efficiency:

Bolten left town. McClure got married to a boy from junior high. She moved to California, had two girls, came back, got divorced, and all the while she and Bolten stayed friends. He never married or had kids. Then in 2003, Hurricane Isabel happened. McClure was living in Garrett Park and was without power for days. The food in her fridge spoiled.

"I called a couple different friends over the course of different nights and made them take me to dinner," McClure says. Bolten was one of the people she called. They spent an evening together and became a couple again.

"It's wonderful to be with someone who you have that history with," says McClure, who splits her time between doing development work for a charter school in the District and a marketing job. "It's another function of growing up here," she says, invoking the two Districts of Columbia, "the one that's political and transient and then this little sleepy Southern town where you do maybe marry the boy next door."

Their politics are different. McClure has been a registered Democrat for years, though she now considers herself an independent. She recalls that in the summer of '72, after Bolten graduated from high school, she and Abraham were handing out George McGovern pamphlets while Bolten headed to Miami for the Republican convention.

Their divergent politics were less a source of friction and "more a source of amusement," McClure says. She says after they found out Bolten was joining the Bush campaign, "Maury's all-time line was, 'Where did we fail him?' "

The themes of Bolten's life revolve like grooves on vinyl. When he plays bass guitar now with the Compassionates, sometimes McClure sings backup with them. He still refers to his sister by her childhood nickname. To this day, when she calls his office, his sister Connaughton says, she has to identify herself as "the Beast" or the folks answering the phone don't know who she is.

"I'm not even sure the president knows her name is Susanna," McClure says.

In Bolten's home office, McClure says, near a watercolor of the Tastee Diner that his mother commissioned for him a few years ago, Bolten keeps a dictionary that he consults just as his mother did when he was growing up. Words come up in conversation, McClure says, and they look them up to see where they came from. Bolten is said to be known within the Bush administration as a details man, and McClure says Bolten's intellectual curiosity and the deliberative fashion in which he breaks problems down is part of what makes him skilled at his job.

"It's actually one of the more comforting things about him," McClure says. "He's perfectly content in the knowledge that not everything has a definite answer, and yet he is happy to keep looking."

This is the role of the Washington wonk, whether he toils in obscurity in a tiny cubicle or as the president's chief of staff.

His lifelong friend Coward tells a story of when Bolten worked in legislative affairs at the White House during the last year of the George H.W. Bush administration.

Coward, a lawyer, could see the window of his friend's West Wing office from his conference room at Baker & McKenzie a few blocks away. They often worked long hours. Sometimes they signaled each other late at night by flicking their office lights off and on, like neighbor children up past their bedtime.

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