Bush Shuns Insiders, Father's Ex-Aides
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 1999; Page A1
Former president George Bush's longtime advisers were troubled. Bush's son was about to launch a presidential bid and some of these once powerful Washington figures felt frozen out. So after an advisory board meeting earlier this year at the Bush presidential library in College Station, Tex., they decided to raise the issue with their former boss.
Some in the group which included onetime Bush officials such as Richard N. Bond, Marlin Fitzwater, Ron Kaufman, Andrew H. Card, James Cicconi and Thomas A. Scully told the former president they were eager to be involved in Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential effort. But when they approached his campaign organization, they were directed toward fund-raising not front-line positions.
One person, according to a participant, said he found it publicly embarrassing that those with far weaker Bush connections were being tapped for prominent advisory roles by the Austin-based operation.
Bush told his former aides to be patient, according to several of those who attended the meeting, and that there would be opportunities later for them to help. But the former president offered no assurances that they would ultimately be given meaningful roles in the campaign. "He said, 'This is their turn,' " recalled one participant. " 'We had our turn.' "
Six months later, in the fast-moving presidential campaign of George W. Bush, this attitude has not changed. From the moment the 53-year-old son of the former president became a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination more than a year ago, he has sent an unequivocal message that this is his own operation not a replay of his father's. And most decidedly not a campaign that will be taken over by Washington's permanent Republican establishment.
Unlike Vice President Gore, who has assembled a senior campaign staff of Washington players and consultants, Bush has shunned the nation's capital in favor of a management team led by three longtime Texas aides and advisers who helped get him elected governor: strategist Karl Rove, campaign manager Joseph Allbaugh and spokesman Karen Hughes.
The result is a lot of unhappy Republicans, almost none of whom is willing to be quoted by name. "People don't feel they have a back door in. Washington is used to dealing with presidential candidates more directly and more intimately," said a senior Republican official who is not interested in joining the campaign, but who is worried that "these three people [Hughes, Rove and Allbaugh], as good as they are, just can't think of it all."
Bush's disdain for Washington and the East Coast establishment goes back to his days at Andover and Yale, where he was openly contemptuous of those he judged socially or intellectually pretentious. A mediocre student himself, Bush still rolls his eyes when he hears the name Strobe Talbott an academic and student leader in his 1968 Yale class and now deputy secretary of state. In part out of anger that Yale was slow to honor his father also an alumnus George W. has never gone back for a reunion.
In later years, Bush came to resent what he regarded as the power-driven, clubby world of Washington, and he actively avoided it throughout most of his father's long tenure here. His feelings were largely reinforced by an 18-month stint in Washington as a full-time paid aide to his father's 1988 campaign, and later as an informal adviser to his father in the White House.
Bush's distaste for those he calls "intellectual snobs" was eventually expanded to include professional political operatives, whom he has referred to as "vendors" and who he believes have fleeting loyalty once the political winds shift, as they did for his father during his ill-fated 1992 presidential reelection bid.
"He saw it up close and he was horrified by what he saw. He saw the disloyalty. He saw rats leaving the sinking ship," said Mark McKinnon, Bush's Austin-based media consultant, who is a Democrat. Bush, McKinnon added, sees the operatives as simply opportunists smelling a winner "big game hunters looking to bag him, looking for a trophy, and a rack to hang on the wall."
Others confirm that Bush is adamant about not hiring people whom he views as interested in "feathering their own nests," consultants whose success depends on them publicly trading on their relationship with a future president.
Today, while giving the appearance of an open operation with a wide range of outside domestic and foreign policy advisers on board including high-profile names from his father's White House such as Condoleezza Rice the Austin-based campaign in fact remains a tightly held organization controlled by the "iron triangle" of Rove, Allbaugh and Hughes.
His national finance chairman, Don Evans, is an oil executive from Midland, Tex., whose wife Bush has known since grade school and who has never played a significant role in a national campaign. Outside his close circle of staff advisers, Bush consults most often with his father, childhood friends, relatives and political people whom he trusts who are outside of Washington, such as Doug Wead, his father's onetime liaison with the evangelical community.
"It's a big tent but . . . his team is in place," said Craig Stapleton, a cousin by marriage and a longtime Bush confidant. "This is the team that is going to the finish line with him."
Bush's clear success so far from his standing in the polls to the fund-raising effort has only reinforced his views that he can run a first-rate operation without Washington.
Some people found this out the hard way. After nearly a year of negotiations with Bush about becoming his campaign manager, former Iowa representative Tom Tauke decided that despite assurances from Bush, he would never truly have authority over Bush's longtime Texas staff. Tauke declined Bush's offer in January fortunately before he gave up his lucrative job at Bell Atlantic Corp. in Washington.
David Beckwith wasn't so lucky. A former reporter who had worked in the Bush administration as spokesman for Vice President Dan Quayle, Beckwith gave up his job and moved his family to Austin only to be fired in July, after 10 weeks on the job. The campaign never gave an official reason, but it is widely believed that Beckwith was sacked because he was too close to the Washington media establishment, who turned to him for pithy quotes, thereby bypassing Hughes.
When Bush unveiled his exploratory committee in March, he pointedly reached back to the Reagan era for people such as former secretary of state George Shultz and former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour neither seen as loyalists of his father and passed over longtime friends of former president Bush, such as his secretary of state, James A. Baker III.
Baker, who has remained close to the elder Bush, said in an interview that George W.'s choices are simply good politics. "His people are those who have been with him, who got him reelected, and who got him where he is today. He's doing the right thing," said Baker, who added that he has helped Bush with two fund-raisers and dismissed the notion that he has been passed over.
Fitzwater, former president Bush's White House spokesman, said his view of George W.'s strategy has "broadened" because it is "the historical norm" for a presidential candidate to pick his own team. "When one administration leaves, very seldom do those participants come back in the next one."
But Bush's situation is unique. Only one man in American history John Quincy Adams has followed his father to the White House, and he was elected 24 years after his father, John Adams, left office. Bush is running seven years after his father's defeat, and many of the elder Bush's advisers are still active in politics. And a number now have bruised feelings.
Bond, once the senior Bush's chairman of the Republican National Committee, now refuses to return calls from the campaign, and while he still says he supports Bush, he contributed $1,000 to Bush's rival John McCain. Beckwith had to quickly return to Washington to re-enroll his children in school and look for another job. Sources close to Beckwith said he is still not certain why he was fired.
Jim Cicconi, a former Bush White House official who is now an executive vice president and general counsel of AT&T Corp., is friendly with Bush but has not sought to play a major role in the campaign. Consequently, he was hurt to read a news report last year stating that the campaign hoped to keep him out. Other GOP pundits and consultants who have never been given the time of day by Bush have been surprised to receive back-channel complaints from Bush intermediaries when they disagree with Bush publicly or show any interest in one of Bush's opponents.
Bush's views toward Washington are inextricably linked to his devotion to his father, who had his own love-hate relationship with the city. On the one hand, the elder Bush was the consummate establishment figure, who glided through a series of prestigious Washington jobs before becoming president. On the other hand, the senior Bush resented being dismissed at times as a feckless preppy with limited political skills.
And some of the same people who snickered at the father privately also dismiss the son as a lightweight blessed with the name George Bush. While they might also jump at the chance to sign up with him, Bush is keeping them at arm's length.
"One of the lessons he learned from '92 is that you need to surround yourself with staff loyal to you and your agenda," said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was legislative affairs director in the Bush White House and who is advising George W. Bush on policy.
Bush was known as his father's "loyalty enforcer" during his time in Washington and was considered a useful back channel to the former president with good political instincts. But "Junior," as he was known, is also remembered by many who knew him then for having little or no interest in policy, for being confrontational and rarely wearing a suit, and for spitting tobacco in waste cans. Virtually everyone interviewed for this story said they never expected to be talking about him as a presidential candidate.
Bush has no office in Washington today; anyone who wants to see him or work for him has to come to Austin. And while effectively courting the national media, he seems to have little interest in trying to woo conservative opinion makers such as columnist George F. Will. Will was critical of Bush's father and has already indicated in at least one recent column that he has some reservations about the son. The feeling is mutual, said one friend of Bush, who recalled George W. once referring to Will as a "pompous ass."
To counter the bad taste left by the Beckwith firing, and to make peace with those who feel excluded, senior campaign aides in recent months have stepped up the calls to Washington players to "keep them on the reservation," according to sources.
While Bush has kept his campaign infrastructure firmly rooted in Austin, he has looked to Republicans in Congress for policy advice. Bush or his staff members talk regularly, for example, with Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), a family friend and Bush's point man in the Senate. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is the designated point man in the House, and Bush has also assembled a steering committee of House members who flew to Austin last month. Besides Portman they include: Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.), Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) and Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.). Former representative Bill Paxon (N.Y.) has also been to Austin to meet with Bush and consults with the campaign regularly.
In addition, the campaign has hired several Washington aides in the past few months for higher-profile positions. Josh Bolten, a legislative affairs deputy in the Bush White House, and for the past five years an executive at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in London, has been named policy director. Maria Cino, a veteran Hill operative who was executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 1994 and 1996 cycles, was named political director. The campaign has also hired a number of other mid-level aides from Washington and the Hill.
Meanwhile, prominent Republican operatives, such as Charlie Black a veteran of six presidential campaigns have been told to "keep their powder dry" their services might be needed down the road.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company