An Exit Toward Soul-Searching
As Bush Staffers Leave, Questions About Legacy Abound

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.

"I know the intentions were noble and the arguments to go to war -- we believed there were weapons of mass destruction and he was a malevolent figure," said Wehner, who was White House director of strategic initiatives until August. "The fact that it didn't go so well is something you struggle with."

Wehner, who recalled losing sleep in 2006 when the war seemed to be further slipping away, blames former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "It was mishandled in a lot of ways," he said. "The administration went in with a plausible approach and a plausible strategy, but it was wrong. The secretary of defense didn't make the adjustments that he ought to have and there's a cost to that and that's something you live with."

The subsequent troop buildup, Wehner added, has given him hope again. "I think we have a decent shot at a decent outcome," he said. "But mistakes were made and there's a cost to it."

One cost has been friendship. Some people who were once close no longer talk with him, Wehner said. "The view is 'Pete was a nice guy, but he was taken over by the dark side, joined Rove world.' "

One who shares that view is journalist Joe Klein. "There are a number of us who were friendly with Pete back in the day who think he drank the Kool-Aid," Klein said. In May, Klein used his Time magazine blog to directly challenge a Wehner essay on politics and the war, chastising his onetime friend for ignoring "the lives lost and shattered" and the "vast damage" to U.S. standing done by the Iraq war. "I have two pieces of career advice," Klein wrote to Wehner. "Stop writing this swill and think about penance. Take some time to clear your head, a lot of time, and pay for your sins by emptying bedpans at Walter Reed."

Asked about such criticism, Wehner said he did not want to discuss anyone in particular. But he said he has been pained by the personal estrangements caused by the war. "We were friends," he said, "and I'm sad about that."

'Is This Worth It?'

Probably no one in the White House has seen Iraq up close more than Meghan O'Sullivan. She served as an adviser to initial U.S. occupation Administrator L. Paul Bremer in Baghdad before Bush brought her to the White House, where she became deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. When she decided to move on last spring, Bush asked her to wait for a few months and spend the summer in Iraq helping to push political leaders there toward reconciliation, a task as yet incomplete.

The dreams followed her home. "I'm not dreaming of Iraq imploding or anything like that," she said. "But I'm often in Iraq. Or I'll dream about something Iraq-related or something that's happening. Sometimes it might be particularly movielike. But a lot of it is just because I'm processing what I've done all day." The now-former aide corrected herself: "What I did all day."

O'Sullivan was at the center of some of the most important decisions about Iraq, including some blamed for exacerbating the tensions, but she also takes pride in helping write what became an early draft of the new Iraqi constitution and helping usher in democratic elections. The daughter of a schoolteacher and an engineer in Lexington, Mass., she used to assign herself reports on the world in the second grade. One day she wrote a report on Palestine, only to have a teacher keep her after school to explain, "There is no more Palestine."

Her intelligence and passion for Iraq impressed Bush and other admirers, but some on the ground bristled at what they saw as micromanagement from Washington -- "the term 7,000-mile screwdriver was invented for Meghan," groused one official -- and her youth made others think she was in over her head. She turned 38 the day of Bush's latest address to the nation on Iraq last month. She has become so identified with Iraq that friends counseled her years ago to get out "because I was going to ruin my career." She ignored them. "I didn't do any of this for personal advancement," she said.

But the war weighs on her. She still thinks regularly of the Iraqi leaders she has known who have been killed. "There is a certain heaviness that one carries with you when you have been in any realm of responsibility over something as serious as this and when there have been so many sacrifices," she said. "That does stay with you and you're conscious of it every day."

She went on: "I never tried to shake that. That's part of reality and it should help shape your thinking. No one who works on a war should be free from thinking of the sacrifices that come with it. You're always thinking: Is this worth it? Is this going to be worth it? What justifies the level of sacrifices on both the U.S. and Iraqi side? I believe as long as the possibility of being successful's there, you can justify continuing the effort."

But she admitted, "I'm a big dreamer." In both senses of the phrase, she added.

'Cards We Were Dealt'

Karl Rove keeps a newspaper picture of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and his wife on the day Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case. Rove says he holds onto it to remember. "I'm really sad about Scooter," he said. Although he does not say it, the picture may also be a reminder of what he avoided.

Rove adamantly denies doing anything wrong, but the investigation, which hung over him for years before special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald decided against seeking an indictment, gave more grist to enemies who see a ruthless, Machiavellian player willing to destroy his critics. Rove sees it the other way around; he sees a hunt for a crime that did not exist.

The investigation, Rove said, was his lowest moment at Bush's side. "It was really hard for me," he said. "I'm not bitter about it. But I'll tell you, my wife is bitter about all the people who carry those little badges that say, 'Press.' "

Foes assumed Rove's resignation as deputy chief of staff was connected to his role in the U.S. attorney firings, but Rove scoffs at that notion. His critics assume all sorts of things he says are not true. "I'm the evil genius," he said, mocking his reputation. More seriously, he said, "I understand there are people out there who really don't like me. And the question is, am I going to let it bother me? I ignore the ugly things that are said." Still, the notoriety comes with an edge. "I'm more conscious of my surroundings when I'm in public places."

The truth, he said, is that he really did leave to spend more time with his wife and college-age son, even if that has left him feeling guilty about leaving Bush. "I told the boss, 'I feel like I'm deserting you in a time of war,' " he said. "But you know, my wife is right. My wife is a two-time cancer survivor. How much time can I ask her to wait? I don't feel sorry for myself."

This was a recurring theme in the course of an hour-long conversation. He is not depressed, he said more than once. "Hey, man, that was my life," he said. "It's not my life now. One of the reasons I don't think I'm depressed is I'm always looking forward."

Rove is not one for dwelling on decisions made or sharing blame for what went wrong. He has harsh words for Democrats who, he said, never accepted Bush as president. But he said he understands the price of the war. "It weighs on you a lot, and if you're not aware of it at the time, you're insane," he said. "People die. People from the same small town in Nevada where I grew up. . . . Is there second-guessing in terms of people hand-wringing? 'Oh my God, if we'd only done it this way'? No. But is there discussion of did this work out the way we expected and if not, why? Yes."

Dan Bartlett speaks in similar terms. As Bush's counselor, Bartlett and Rove often quarreled in the White House. By the end, colleagues said, they barely spoke except in formal meetings. Rove usually favored an in-your-face political strategy, while Bartlett advocated a less aggressive approach. And friends said Bartlett felt that Rove still saw him as the young kid who came to work for him 15 years ago.

Neither wants to talk about that now, and they spoke with each other by telephone recently. Bartlett shares Rove's aversion to revisiting the past. Asked about regrets, Bartlett said, "I can think of a banner on a certain ship," a reference to the infamous "Mission Accomplished" sign behind Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003. "As far as how the presidency has gone," he said, "these are the cards we were dealt, these were the decisions we made. I learned too much in that job -- you can't second-guess every decision you made."

Bartlett left after his wife had another baby, leaving them with three children under age 4. He is 36 years old. "I feel like 56," he said. "I'm starting to get some of those years back." He has known no profession but working for George W. Bush. "It's really weird to think I've got an entire life ahead of me," he said. But his youth carries an advantage. When he left, he told colleagues, "I'm younger than all of you so I'll write the last book."

Pulling away after so much time is difficult. He started to watch Bush's last news conference on television, then turned it off halfway through after finding himself pacing the room. He still resents the newspaper articles that present Bush as "the most-isolated, stupid moron in America today," but he knows he needs to move on.

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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