And Away They Go

Lonely at The Top

President Bush, in Waco, Tex., addresses Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's resignation, the latest drain on his inner circle.
President Bush, in Waco, Tex., addresses Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's resignation, the latest drain on his inner circle. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A friend who saw Alberto Gonzales socially over the weekend said the attorney general seemed calm for the first time in months. But in truth, the weight was likely lifted off Gonzales two weeks ago when Karl Rove announced his resignation -- opening the door for one of the last of the Texas loyalists to bolt.

There is a moment in every administration when it starts to look like Enron after the collapse, when the hometown heavies start leaving in droves (either by choice or by cattle prod), replaced by the hired guns with no particular loyalty to the company.

Gonzales's announcement yesterday that he was resigning could very well mark that moment for Bush, a president who has always made it quite clear that he functioned best buffered by friends, loyalists and his own pillow.

Not since Jimmy Carter's arrival from Georgia in 1977 has a president relied so heavily on a tight cluster of personal friends and longtime aides, placing a higher premium on loyalty than Washington experience.

And Gonzales was arguably the most grateful of them all to Bush, who plucked him from a Texas law firm in 1994 to serve as his gubernatorial counsel and brought him to the height of federal power, grooming him along the way in hopes he would be the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. The president reveled in Gonzales's triumphant narrative from immigrant poverty to Harvard Law School and beyond. Gonzales and his wife, Rebecca, enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the Bushes; they were among those who received coveted invitations to spend weekends at Camp David and view movies at the White House.

"It is really of the utmost significance for a president like this to be losing his inner circle," said Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor and presidential expert at American University. "Bush is a not an intellectually grounded president. . . . He is a personally grounded president. Personal relationships are everything to him -- loyalty and trust are paramount. . . . There's no secure anchor for him anymore."

In the past 18 months, as approval ratings for Bush have plummeted, the president has lost steadfast communications advisers in Dan Bartlett and Scott McClellan, both Lone Star loyalists. Harriet Miers, who succeeded Gonzales as White House counsel and, like him, was seen as a possibility for the Supreme Court, came from Texas and went back there. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and chief of staff Andrew Card both have left, as have deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch II and White House political director Sara Taylor.

Among the top-tier Texans who followed Bush here, only a handful remain -- Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson and OMB Deputy Director Clay Johnson, Bush's Yale roommate and head of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. ("We're not going anywhere," assured Johnson's wife, Anne, yesterday. "We're lifers.")

Those closest to the president say that the impact of losing his work comrades and confidants is blunted by Bush's very nature. He is a sentimental man, they say, who makes it his business to stay close to dozens of friends from different eras of his life.

Donald Etra, who was a member with Bush of Skull and Bones, Yale's secret society, was appointed by the president to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council five years ago, one of the many plums Bush awarded to friends. With the appointment came a seemingly casual request from Bush that Etra let him know whenever he was in Washington for meetings. Etra understood Bush was serious.

And so, in the past five years, Etra -- often accompanied by his wife -- has slept in the White House 28 times.

"It gets him out of the bubble," said Etra, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles. "He wants to know what is going on in my world -- he asks about the criminal defense system. He is always going to have his friends around. No one is going anywhere."

Much was written about Bush's demand for loyalty and his friendships when he was elected in 2000. His prep school and Yale buddy Johnson was promptly put in charge of political appointments and would open interviews asking: Do you want to work in the White House, or do you want to work in George Bush's White House?

In the end, many of the top jobs went to those who had been with Bush when he was Texas governor or who had known him long before he was considered presidential timber, those who were well aware of any skeletons -- and who would never talk.

It was Gonzales, the president's first White House counsel, who in 1996 got then-Gov. Bush out of jury duty in a drunken driving case, when he surely would have been questioned about his own DWI arrest two decades earlier. And it was Karen Hughes, among Bush's closest White House advisers, who dug through records of Bush's service in the Texas National Guard in search of a smoking gun that could have derailed his candidacy. Don Evans, Bush's first commerce secretary, was part of Bush's innermost personal circle when they both lived and worked in Midland, Tex., doing oil deals and gathering for family barbecues. Donald Ensenat, another Yale friend, became protocol chief. Craig Roberts Stapleton, a cousin by marriage, first was dispatched to Prague as ambassador and now holds that title in Paris.

As Bush was first running for president, his obvious comfort with people was considered a great political asset, and loyalty to old friends was part of that attraction. "The definition of friend," Bush said in 2000 interview, "is someone who is loyal. An acquaintance is someone who might not be loyal. Loyal means that I'm with you when times are good or times are bad."

When he finally accepted the resignation of Gonzales, which he had adamantly resisted despite a seven-month siege at Justice that ballooned into allegations that the attorney general had lied to Congress, Bush remained defiant.

"After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign," Bush said grimly. "It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company