Policy Aide's Departure Continues Transformation of Bush's Staff

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

Over the past several years, Peter H. Wehner has sent a blizzard of e-mails around the White House and the rest of Washington, offering strategy and policy ideas to President Bush and making the case for those policies to outsiders. The president calls them "Wehner-grams," and their author has been so prolific that they now fill 24 binders.

But sometime in the coming weeks, Wehner will gather those 24 binders in a box and sign off of his well-worn White House e-mail account for the last time. Wehner, the White House director of strategic initiatives and the official in-house intellectual for a president often derided as anti-intellectual, will be the latest Bush aide to move on.

Wehner's departure is part of a quiet, slow-motion transition at the White House as it plows through its seventh year. Although Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett and others remain, many key figures at the next couple of levels are, one by one, turning in their Secret Service passes or preparing to do so in the next few months. Their successors will help form the team that will take the president to the finish line, now less than 22 months away.

"I've been here six years, and there was just the sense that it was time to go. We've been through a lot," Wehner said in an interview. "If you're not going to stay through to the end, you have to figure out when to get off the train."

The turnover owes more to the cycle of a presidency late in its tenure rather than to any overall design, according to insiders. The Bush team has been unusually stable compared with those of past presidents. But although none of those leaving says so publicly, it has been an especially exhausting presidency, one in which many on the inside have grown frustrated by the political and policy setbacks of Bush's second term. Some aides look to the remainder of the administration and see more gloomy times.

The changes will deprive Bush of institutional knowledge accumulated by aides who have been with him through the fires of the past six years. At the same time, they could inject fresh energy and ideas at a time when he is searching for ways to revitalize his administration and repair his legacy.

The personnel moves cross lines inside the institution. Harriet E. Miers, one of Bush's closest friends, resigned as White House counsel at the end of January and has been replaced by Fred F. Fielding, who is bringing several new lawyers to an office that deals with congressional investigations. Bush's chief Russia adviser, Thomas E. Graham, who helped shape U.S. policy toward Vladimir Putin as the Kremlin cracked down on dissent, left in February.

White House political director Sara M. Taylor, who has worked with Bush since April 1999, when he was starting his first presidential run, told Rove in December that she plans to leave in the spring, according to friends. Special adviser Peter D. Feaver, the top White House specialist on public opinion during wartime, plans to return this summer to Duke University, where his two-year leave is expiring. Other officials have left the legislative affairs, domestic policy, homeland security, staff secretary, public liaison, speechwriting and first lady's offices.

The sense of flux heightened this week when press secretary Tony Snow, the public face of the White House, was sidelined by the recurrence of cancer. Snow hopes to come back, but no one knows when or if that will be possible during what promises to be grueling treatment.

White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten called the changes the "natural ebb and flow" of the institution. "We must have one of the best records of continuity this late into an administration," he said. But given the hours and stress, he said, "it's particularly hard to ask folks to stick out a full eight years, so I guess it's not surprising that some of the people who started at or near the start would be going, now that we're at the Year Six mark."

The departures take their toll, though. Bush was embarrassed to learn that a Russian general he hosted in the Oval Office this week has been accused of war crimes in Chechnya. Some officials suggested that would not have slipped onto his calendar had Graham, a veteran Moscow watcher, still been at the National Security Council.

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