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.
"He hasn't changed his philosophy, but he was advised and accepts . . . that massive government intervention has been necessary in the financial markets in order to protect the viability of the financial markets," Bolten said. "It's been a dialogue," he added. "It's not that Paulson all of a sudden shows up once a week and says, 'Here is what I am going to do,' and the president rubber-stamps it. It is a regular conversation between Paulson and Bernanke and Paulson and the White House."
Perhaps the best example of the president's approach to decision-making came in the January 2007 move to send more troops and adopt a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. The decision was taken after Bush replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary and after Hadley led an intense policy review that offered a vehicle for critics of the existing strategy.
Hadley, 61, who was deputy national security adviser under Condoleezza Rice in Bush's first term and moved up in 2005 when Rice became secretary of state, describes the troop buildup in Iraq as "the most remarkable thing" Bush did in office. "With all the naysayers and the doubters and all the people who by the fall of 2006 say, 'Mr. President, this was a mistake; why won't you admit it and pull the plug on this effort?' he is the one guy who said we have to make it work," he said.
When asked why the president took so long to shift course after conditions in Iraq had clearly deteriorated, Hadley replied that Bush had a responsibility to keep hope alive for the soldiers, their families and other coalition partners in Iraq even while considering a new strategy. "Are there things we should and would have done differently? Sure," Hadley said. "Could it have been done sooner? I personally don't think so. You know, these things take some time. The trick was then to realize we had a strategy that didn't work and then to make the change -- and that's what the president did."
Hadley also gave little ground to criticism of the administration's detention and interrogation policies, saying there is a balance to be struck between protecting the country and being transparent about what the government is doing to fight terrorism.
"I think the balance that you can strike now, after you have not been attacked for seven years, may be a little bit different than the balance that you would strike in the immediate year after the attack when you don't know who the enemy is," Hadley said. "You've got to be careful about that kind of second-guessing, because it's hard to re-create the environment in which those decisions were made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11."
For his part, Bolten defended the administration's handling of the economy, save for what he describes as its ineffectiveness in obtaining early legislation reining in mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "We pressed hard. I wished we had been more effective in that. We got resistance from the Congress," Bolten says. "That's not a partisan comment, because we got bipartisan resistance in Congress on the reform of Fannie and Freddie before it was too late.
"If we had gotten control of Fannie and Freddie substantially earlier than we did, I think the problem could have been substantially mitigated. I don't think it would have prevented it," Bolten said, referring to the meltdown of the housing market. Other than that, he adds, "maybe there's stuff you would go back and do differently in this administration, but I don't know what that is today."
After eight years of punishing hours -- both men work six days a week in the office and often a seventh -- the end is now in sight. Both Hadley and Bolten insist they have no clue what they will do after Jan. 20, save take a nap (in Bolten's case) and take his wife to breakfast (in Hadley's). Neither is planning a tell-all book, an aide said.
Bolten and Hadley have plainly loved their jobs -- and the man they have built their life around for the past eight years. "Something that is totally lost is what a blast it is to be around here," Bolten said. "Even the hard days, there's some element of humor, of being a big person, of affection that's just overwhelming."
Bolten said another of his goals when he took over was to try to get the country to see the likable boss he and other aides saw in private, convinced that would boost Bush's popularity. "I failed miserably," he conceded. "Maybe in the beginning of the sixth year of a presidency, that's a quixotic task. . . . But everybody who has actual personal exposure to the president, almost everybody, appreciates what a good leader he is, how smart he is and, especially, how humane he is."
Hadley invoked Bush's 2000 campaign theme in summing up the president's personal qualities. "He has got this great compassion which was not just a slogan, 'compassionate conservative.' It is who he is. It is one of the great things he brought to this office," Hadley concluded. "This is the one thing that just drives me crazy, that somehow this is an arrogant administration, an arrogant president running an arrogant policy. This guy -- one thing he is not is arrogant."