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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)

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One thing he does not miss is the daily briefing on terrorist threats. The myriad dark possibilities and catastrophic scenarios outlined by intelligence agencies shadowed everything the White House did, the ever-present fear that any day might bring another 9/11. "That's the most comforting part, not knowing," he said. "That was the worst thing, knowing. That was hard. You can't make yourself not think about these things."

'About the Lessons Learned'

Leaving the White House can resemble a 12-step program. "The first couple weeks are euphoria because you can sleep and all that," said Sara Taylor, the White House political director who spent eight years working for Bush before leaving in May. "I can't really explain it to you, but when you leave, there's just something that lifts." Then comes the depression. "It hit me in August -- what do I do, how do I function, nobody calls me anymore. It was a month of weirdness. And now I'm back in my groove."

Others describe a sense of withdrawal. One former aide who did not want to be named asked to be put back on a White House e-mail list so he would receive daily communications updates. The day after he left, Inboden kept reaching to his naked hip expecting to find his White House BlackBerry.

Bartlett bought an iPhone to replace his BlackBerry. "I was convinced it was broken on a Sunday afternoon because I literally didn't have a single e-mail all day," he said. "I had my wife send me an e-mail to make sure it was working. It went right through. So to go from 500 e-mails a day to zero was strange."

Most of those who have left in recent months are hitting the speaking circuit, considering book contracts or joining consulting firms. Peter Wehner took a position at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Peter Feaver returned to teach at Duke University, Inboden has been hired to open a think tank in London. Former budget director Rob Portman has gone back to Cincinnati, where he plans to practice law and maybe run for governor.

Rove already has multiple options. While on the phone from Dallas before a meeting on the future Bush library, he excused himself to answer a knock at the hotel door. A package arrived and he ripped it open. "I sign it and suddenly I'm a lot richer," he said with Rovian mirth. What kind of contract, he would not say. It was not a book contract; Bartlett said nearly 20 publishers are competing for Rove's book.

Rove said his book will be worth it. "It will be vicious and slashing," he promised. He sounded as if he was joking. Sort of. But it's not as if he has gone off the reservation. At the end of the interview, he asked that his quotes be sent to the White House first. "I'm still a cog in the great machine," he explained.

But even the cog does not want to be identified solely by his ties to the president. He knows he will go down in history as Bush's "architect," but he thinks he can expand his identity beyond just that. "It's not like my life from here forward is going to be defined by it," he said. "I have a chance to create something else. I'm not just going to be typecast as, 'Oh, that's the Bush guy.' "

As for O'Sullivan, she has taken a fellowship at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government while she ponders her next step. As she approaches age 40, she wanted "to make room for other things in my life," including apple-picking with her niece. Harvard asked her to speak at an Iraq forum a few days after her arrival on campus, but she demurred. It was too soon.

"The first thing I'm going to do is recapture my life," she said. "I'm taking a poetry class here. I'm going to do a triathlon. And I'm going to break all kinds of records on sleep. And then I'm going to devote the time to thinking about what happened, to thinking about the lessons learned."

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