Two Advisers Reflect on Eight Years With Bush

Joshua Bolten, left, and Stephen Hadley attacked the idea that Vice President Cheney pulled foreign policy strings.
Joshua Bolten, left, and Stephen Hadley attacked the idea that Vice President Cheney pulled foreign policy strings. (J. Scott Applewhite - AP)
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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2009

White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley remember conferring with President Bush during the darkest days of the Iraq war, in 2005 and 2006, when violence was out of control. In daily 7 a.m. meetings in the Oval Office, Bush reviewed "blue sheets" detailing incidents involving U.S. soldiers; he would circle the casualty figures and press his top aides for details about the deaths.

"It was pretty grim news," Hadley recalled last week. For him, however, the sessions underscored the president's focus. "This notion that somehow the president didn't know what was going on, information was withheld from him in some way, he didn't have a picture of what was going on: He got that picture" -- Hadley smacked his palms together for emphasis -- "at 7 o'clock every morning."

Few officials have had a closer view of the Bush presidency over the past eight years than Bolten and Hadley, who are among the handful of senior staffers who entered the White House with Bush in 2001 and will exit with him Jan. 20. Though the two Washington veterans did not meet Bush until his first presidential campaign, they developed a special loyalty to the president, seeking to keep his administration on an even keel through the turmoil of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis that struck last year. The two men remained, even as well-known members of Bush's longtime Texas mafia -- Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and others -- moved on.

Last week, in lengthy interviews in the spacious chief of staff's office in the West Wing, Bolten and Hadley reflected on their White House years and painted an affectionate portrait of the president. As two of the top officials who have had to defend controversial administration policies for the duration of the Bush presidency, they voiced frustration over their inability to improve Bush's popularity and to counter the administration's image of arrogance. But in a wide-ranging conversation lasting more than two hours, the two men also rebutted what they consider common misconceptions of the George W. Bush era, such as the president's alleged insulation from bad news and the view that Vice President Cheney wielded unbridled behind-the-scenes power.

"One of the mythologies," Hadley said, "is that it was the vice president that somehow was pulling the strings on foreign policy in the first term and made it very ideologically driven and that somehow in the second term, the vice president's influence is in decline and, therefore, somehow the real Bush has come forward, and we have a more pragmatic foreign policy."

"That's just hooey -- it's just hooey," the ever-polite Hadley concluded, with the strongest language he would muster for print. (Bolten chuckled and suggested earthier epithets, such as "bunk.")

But at the same time, Bolten said that one of his goals when he took over as chief of staff in the spring of 2006 was to put Bush back at the center of decision-making. From both officials' perspective, the administration got into trouble when aides tried to make big decisions without involving the president.

"He's a good decision-maker," Bolten said. "If it's important enough to be a presidential issue, we ought to expose the president to more information and more views, and we ought to let him decide."

Both Bolten and Hadley worked for the administration of Bush's father, Hadley at the Pentagon and Bolten as a trade official, but their presence at the current apex of power reveals much about President George W. Bush's management style. Neither is a screamer or an alpha male along the lines of Henry A. Kissinger or other past West Wing figures who dominated decision-making through force of personality. The low-key approach of both Bolten and Hadley often frustrated colleagues who would have preferred more assertive figures surrounding Bush. Yet for better or worse, theirs is exactly the approach that Bush wanted during his years in the Oval Office.

"When the president offered me the job," Bolten recalled, "he said the same thing to me that I think he said to Andy Card when he offered him the job -- that he neither wanted nor needed a prime minister. Our job is to make sure he's well positioned to make good decisions."

Bolten, 54, who served as deputy chief of staff and then budget director before replacing Card as chief of staff in 2006, dismisses the idea that the president has not been challenged by his aides. "Plenty of times I have said, 'Boy, I think that's a terrible idea,' " he said. "The president is, possibly contrary to public opinion, very good about hearing and wanting contrary advice."

He echoed the point when discussing the dramatic shift in economic policy of recent months, dismissing the notion that Bush abandoned free-market principles and simply subcontracted decisions to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.

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