By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007
White House counselor Dan Bartlett, one of President Bush's closest and most trusted aides, said yesterday that he will resign his post in July, leaving a void in an administration that has seen a string of departures as it struggles with sagging public approval ratings.
Bartlett, the father of three young children, said he will seek work in the private sector so he can spend more time with his family. The announcement came on his 36th birthday. "I've had competing families. And, unfortunately, the Bush family has prevailed too many times, and it's high time for the Bartlett family to prevail," he told reporters.
He has spent virtually his entire career working for Bush, starting in 1993, as Bush prepared for his first gubernatorial campaign in Texas. That relationship has allowed Bartlett to speak candidly with the president and to expand his strategic communications role into that of a policy adviser to the president with a portfolio.
The White House says it is looking outside for his replacement, but high-ranking aides acknowledged that the ease of communication afforded by Bartlett's 14-year relationship with Bush will be impossible to duplicate.
"Dan is very straightforward, incredibly smart, thoughtful, a good listener and comfortable in his own skin," said Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser. "That makes him someone who can speak plainly to the president of the United States."
Karen P. Hughes, Bartlett's predecessor as presidential counselor, who is now an undersecretary of state, said it is inevitable that whoever replaces Bartlett will have a different kind of interaction with the president. "It doesn't mean it will be better or worse," she said. "It will be different."
Bartlett's departure comes as the Bush administration's top priorities, including the war in Iraq and the campaign to spread democracy across the globe, have suffered setbacks. At home, polls have shown that only a third of Americans approve of Bush's job performance, and international surveys show that respect for the United States is at a low ebb around the world -- heightening the need for an effective communications strategy.
Bartlett's resignation "is a problem for George Bush, who needs strong and politically savvy advisers to crawl through the next year and a half of his term as president," said Tobe Bercovitz, a veteran political communications consultant and interim dean of Boston University's College of Communication. "Compounding the problem is the lack of first-rate political gurus who want to have their reputations tarnished by being part of the Bush White House."
White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten said he is confident that Bartlett's replacement will be named by the end of the month. "I think we'll be well positioned for a smooth transition," he said. "My experience here at the White House is, whenever we lose a key player, there is always someone exceptional willing to step in or step up."
In a statement announcing Bartlett's departure, Bush said: "Dan has been a true counselor to the president. His contribution has been immeasurable."
Bartlett has not only overseen the White House news media operation, whose most visible face is spokesman Tony Snow, but has also helped shape Bush's larger message. He helped vet speeches, plan events and otherwise shape a communication strategy aimed at ensuring that the president's message is heard and understood by audiences across the globe.
"My role at the White House started off much more narrowly, doing the day-in, day-out execution of communication," Bartlett said in an interview. "As it changed into a counselor role, it became more strategic, and it became policy and communications all wrapped into one."
Bartlett dealt directly with reporters on the thorniest issues confronting the president, including immigration, Iraq and the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Bush advisers credit Bartlett with pushing for the administration to talk more openly about the obvious challenges the nation faces in Iraq, something that the administration had been reluctant to do for years. Colleagues said Bartlett argued that the American people are capable of taking "the good with the bad" and that, ultimately, it would enhance the president's credibility to acknowledge the difficulties in Iraq.
Bush and Bartlett met as the future president was preparing for his first gubernatorial campaign in Texas 14 years ago. At that time, Bartlett was a freshly minted University of Texas graduate working for the Austin political consulting firm headed by Rove.
Bartlett handled damage control during the first Bush presidential campaign, particularly on questions regarding Bush's National Guard service and business dealings. Bartlett collected documents, interviewed people involved in the stories and confronted Bush with direct and often uncomfortable questions about the various controversies before fielding reporters' inquiries.
His rapid-response role helped him forge a close relationship with Bush. "I know a lot of the people who are in his life," Bartlett said of the president. "I know a lot of the people in his background. And by knowing so much about him, I've only grown in respect for him."
Bartlett is set to become the latest in a string of top Bush administration officials to leave the White House, including deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch II, who helped lead the policy review that led Bush to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, and Sara Taylor, the White House political director.
More than a year ago, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. left the administration, allowing Bolten, then the budget director, to take over. Bolten has fostered a more open style in a White House often accused of shielding the president from competing points of view.
Bolten, who is leading the search for Bartlett's replacement, has recruited new members of the administration who are widely respected, including Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and White House counsel Fred F. Fielding.
Bartlett, who plans to leave his post around July 4, said he had been thinking seriously about stepping down since the birth of his son this year. With his young family and the demands of his job -- 14-hour days, frequent trips, weekends and vacations chained to his BlackBerry and sometimes even to a mobile videoconferencing device -- Bartlett said he knew it was time to move on.
He has hired lawyer Bob Barnett to help him sift through his job prospects in the private sector, either in Washington or in Texas. He said he is ruling out -- for now, at least -- a political career in Texas or working in the 2008 presidential campaign.
"The experiences I've had working at the highest levels of government will hopefully give me the opportunity to do some interesting things," Bartlett said.