An Exit Toward Soul-Searching

Bush staffers Tony Snow, Dana M. Perino, Dan Bartlett, Karl Rove and Nicolle Wallace, from left, last year. All but Perino have left the White House.
Bush staffers Tony Snow, Dana M. Perino, Dan Bartlett, Karl Rove and Nicolle Wallace, from left, last year. All but Perino have left the White House. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

It had been four days since Meghan O'Sullivan left her job at the White House. Just four days since she gave up her Secret Service pass, her classified hard drive and her entree to the president. Four days since she gave up any day-to-day responsibility for Iraq.

Too soon, evidently, for the dreams to end. "In fact, I was dreaming about Iraq last night," she said. "And I woke up and thought, 'When do you think this will stop?' "

As President Bush's top Iraq adviser while the war sank into an abyss over the past few years, O'Sullivan lived it every waking hour -- and many of the sleeping ones. The dreams came every night, often prosaic, sometimes straight out of a war movie, filled with violence and menace. It was, she said, "all consuming."

Now she has left a White House under siege, part of a parade of longtime aides who have headed for the door in recent months exhausted, sometimes discouraged and wrestling with the legacy of their experience. Karl Rove feels guilty for leaving in a time of war, yet he wants to reinvent himself as more than simply "the Bush guy." Peter H. Wehner rues lost friendships with those estranged by the war. Dan Bartlett is relieved to shed the burden of worrying that any day could bring another terrorist attack.

They left for different reasons -- new professional opportunities, a gentle or not-so-gentle nudge, young kids, the hope of having young kids -- but the cumulative exodus of so many key people at once has transformed the White House as it heads into the dwindling months of the Bush presidency. Rove and Bartlett are gone, and so are their fellow Texans, Harriet E. Miers and Alberto R. Gonzales. Tony Snow, Sara M. Taylor, Rob Portman, J.D. Crouch, Peter D. Feaver, J. Scott Jennings and a host of others have left.

There is so much turnover that on one recent Friday there were four farewell parties or last-day exits. Bush poses for so many Oval Office photos with departing aides it feels like an assembly line. Officials said the transition is a function of so many aides having stayed longer than in past White Houses. "When you look at the people who are leaving, these are people who have been here since the beginning," said Liza Wright, who herself left last month as White House personnel director. "And it's a killer of a job."

All the more so in a White House beset by an intractable war, a hostile Congress, a shipwrecked domestic agenda and near-historic-low approval ratings. The long-term ideals that many of them came to the White House to pursue appear jeopardized, even discredited to many. They tell themselves that they have acted on principle, that the decisions they helped make will be vindicated. But they cannot be sure.

"There's this overriding awareness that we're living and acting for the judgment of history," said William Inboden, who resigned last month as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council.

And as history judges, Iraq is always there. "It constantly looms," he said. "It is the inescapable presence, the inescapable reality. You see it in all these ways. People. Time. Money. Diplomatic and political capital. It sort of becomes the reality you live with and obviously we have to be able to."

'There's a Cost'

The White House under the best of circumstances is a pressure cooker that burns out its denizens in short order. Presidential aides arrive at 6 or 6:30 a.m. and do not leave until 8 at night or sometimes later. Even then, they remain tethered to the job through always-buzzing mobile telephones and BlackBerries.

The messages crossing those BlackBerries have been relentlessly negative the last few years. And some have grown embittered at what has become of the presidency they helped build. A key Bush reelection strategist has disavowed him, his former U.N. ambassador has become a vocal critic of key policies, his former defense secretary says he does not miss him, his former speechwriter wrote a harsh takedown of another top aide.

One former senior official said nearly everyone who has left the administration is angry in some way or another -- at the president for making bad decisions, at his staff for misguiding him, at events that have spiraled out of control. Others called that an exaggeration. Either way, interviews with a dozen top aides who left in recent months reveal a profound sense of ambivalence about the ultimate outcome of their work beyond toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

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