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 Harriet E. Miers, one of Bush's closest friends, resigned as White House counsel at the end of January and has been replaced by Fred F. Fielding, who is bringing several new lawyers to an office that deals with congressional investigations.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.
Of all the aides heading for the door, Wehner had a unique role, one intended to put the Bush presidency in an intellectual framework. He started as a deputy speechwriter, but in 2002, when Rove put him in charge of "strategery," as Bush aides put it in quoting the "Saturday Night Live" sketch, Wehner found himself running his own White House think tank.
He was given the freedom to weigh in on any issue that interested him, as well as regular meetings with Rove to pitch ideas and a license to stop by Bolten's office to offer advice. He organized meetings for the president with historians and scholars, hosted a lecture series and put together luncheon discussions for White House staff members to talk about the Federalist Papers, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. or Alexis de Tocqueville.
"He's developed a tremendous influence at the White House, not by being a policy implementer but by being an idea and argument generator," said former White House senior adviser Michael J. Gerson, with whom Wehner often advocated for initiatives such as AIDS and malaria programs in Africa.
Bolten said: "Pete has the luxury of not having a specific line responsibility so he can step back and read all of the informed commentary, digest it and draw the right conclusions from it."
Wehner became best known, though, for his e-mails. They started out as notes to colleagues pointing out an essay they might have missed and evolved into lengthy musings on the role of the Bush presidency in history or the nature of radical jihad -- sent to 1,000 officials, lobbyists, journalists and others.
"At first, they were distributed like samizdat in the White House," Rove said. "By word of mouth, he ended up with a distribution list of opinion leaders all over."
Self-effacing, mild-mannered and deeply religious, Wehner, 46, nonetheless engaged in robust debate with Bush critics through those e-mails. When columnist George F. Will mocked neoconservative ambitions to transform the Middle East, Wehner blitzed out to supporters and journalists a 2,432-word rebuttal, three times as long as the column, asserting that Will's view "would eventually lead to death and destruction on a scale that is almost unimaginable."
But to critics, the ideas Wehner and Bush advanced have been repudiated by events. Even many who once shared their views now question them in light of the way the Iraq war and the "democracy agenda" have turned out so far. Many neoconservative intellectuals say they need to examine whether the ideas were wrong -- or whether it was just the execution.
As he wraps up his tenure, Wehner admits no such doubts and expresses confidence that Bush will ultimately be proven right on the big questions of his presidency. "Look, we're facing headwinds," he said. "But I don't believe the precepts were wrong, and I believe history is going to vindicate them."