Since he was a 23-year-old working in the Texas governor's policy office, Daniel J. Bartlett has always occupied a privileged place in the world of George W. Bush.
"We kidded him and called him 'the vice,' as in vice governor," said Mike Meece, then a colleague in the office and now an official at the Commerce Department. "It was pretty clear to everyone then that Dan had a special relationship with the governor."
Last week, with the announced departure of presidential counselor Karen P. Hughes, the vice, at the ripe old age of 30, is in line to be the top message maven in the White House, responsible for shaping President Bush's public image and positioning. He's the most senior White House official of his age since George Stephanopoulos -- heady stuff for a guy who, not long ago, raised steer and ran a feed store while serving as president of the Future Farmers of America chapter at Rockwall High in suburban Dallas.
Bartlett heads a team of men whose task it is to buff and polish public perceptions of the 55-year-old president. In Bartlett's orbit are James Wilkinson, 31, a Texan with ties to Capitol Hill Republicans; Tucker Eskew, 40, with roots in South Carolina politics; Scott Sforza, 39, who stages presidential events; and Jack Oliver, 33, a Missourian who is deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The success of Bartlett and his team will determine whether the Bush presidency continues its tight-lipped and highly synchronized control of the words and images coming from the White House. Hughes enforced this discipline and filled young aides with fear. Bartlett, low-key by comparison, commands respect but not the same level of authority. If Hughes can speak to Bush as a peer, Bartlett is more like the son Bush never had.
Bartlett's boys are chaperoned by veteran Washington hand Mary Matalin, but as Vice President Cheney's counselor, she is not their boss. It is rumored that another elder statesman, such as longtime Bush family ally Margaret Tutwiler, now ambassador to Morocco, could be brought into the White House, but even that would be unlikely to reduce Bartlett's growing influence.
Bartlett, a 6-foot-4 native Texan with prematurely gray hair, is in many ways a younger version of the president. They are both cutups known for sarcastic asides in meetings. They compete with each other as runners. And they both were apprehended in college for stealing holiday decorations.
"They are both Christmas criminals," said Mark McKinnon, a Bartlett friend and ad man for the Bush campaign. Bush stole a wreath with his fraternity brothers at Yale. Bartlett stole a Christmas tree with his buddies at the University of Texas.
These days, Bartlett is known as an impressive mimic; he does a dead-on imitation of Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, and passable versions of the president and his father. He's a denizen of Georgetown billiard halls and a devoted fan of the Texas Longhorns, and he maintains an 18 handicap in golf despite a long but erratic tee shot. The president has been heard to refer to his young aide as "Barty," "Bart," "Danny Boy," "Captain Dan" and "Dan the Man."
Bartlett can also be reserved, particularly with those he doesn't know, and a deadly serious defender of Bush's honor. He objects to mentions of his age and "wunderkind" status in the White House. He calls reporters on their cell phones to chew them out -- collegially -- when he believes they have been unfair. He wields the gavel at the White House's daily "message" meetings with no-nonsense purpose and keeps colleagues in line without losing his calm. "Dan can be silent in seven different languages," Wilkinson said.
Bartlett shuns publicity with more convincing protestations than the average Washington power player. Though a regular contact for reporters, he declined to be quoted in this article. "I'm sure he's not at all pleased about participating in profile pieces, and that's the ultimate compliment in town," said Juleanna Glover Weiss, who was Cheney's spokeswoman.
Bartlett has two sources of strength in the White House: his alliance with top Bush strategist Karl Rove, and his bond with the president himself. Bartlett joined Rove's consulting firm during college, and Rove got Bartlett involved in Bush's first run for governor in 1994. Though he worked under Hughes in the presidential campaign and in the White House, and he served in Bush's policy shop in Texas, he is primarily a Rove acolyte. When Rove was under pressure last year for contacts with companies in which he owned stock, Bartlett served as his defender.
His experience in policy, politics and communications makes him the only jack-of-all-trades in Bush's inner circle. But Bush loyalists say that is just one reason for the president's attraction to Bartlett. Both men have sharp, teasing wits. Both are cowboy-boot-wearing professionals with a romantic attachment to Texas. And both men have a distaste for ceremony. "There's a similar quality to them," said Matthew Dowd, an RNC official who befriended Bartlett during the campaign. "It's a healthy disrespect for BS, not taking yourself too seriously."
Bartlett is quiet about his bond with Bush. He became close friends with Cathie Martin, now a Cheney aide, during the campaign, but she saw the depth of his relationship with Bush only when she learned that Bartlett had won $100 in a bet with Bush over whether the younger man could beat his time in a 10-kilometer race. Bartlett did, running it in 42 minutes. Visiting Bartlett's home in Austin, "I saw some of the pictures that were not official pictures, and it first got me to figure out, hey, these guys are close," Martin said. "It's more of a familial relationship."
The 1989 Yellow Jacket, the yearbook at Rockwall High School, does not list Bartlett among the top 10 in his class, though he was a member of the Key Club service group. Teachers in the Republican, upper-middle-income, bedroom community of Dallas remember him as studious but unexceptional. His mother ran a school for underprivileged gifted students; his father was in sales. Though born in Illinois, Bartlett, the youngest of four, grew up in Texas and acquired the local accent.
While still an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, he joined with Rove, who introduced him to Bush. "He carried himself well," said Adam Goldman, a colleague who was later in Bartlett's wedding party and is now a White House official. "It shocked everyone when you found out his age."
Though serving as deputy policy adviser to the then-governor, he became a troubleshooter for Bush and ran the "rapid response" operation during the 2000 campaign, responding to all charges against Bush. He was assigned to peruse Bush's military records when there were questions about his National Guard service. Other top Bush aides enjoyed his dry humor; when golfing on Election Day, the weather turned from sun to clouds to rain and back again, and Bartlett asked his foursome: "Is this what's going to happen tonight?"
Bartlett, who lives in Glover Park with his wife, Allyson, begins work at 6 a.m. and leaves between 7 and 10 p.m. On the job, he chairs staff meetings, sits in on sessions with the president and guides news coverage by giving quotes as a "senior administration official" from his second-floor office in the West Wing. His official duties cover the daily themes coming from the White House, but his closeness to Bush makes him an informal sounding board on all topics. "A lot of people say, 'What does Dan think?' " a colleague said.
All Bartlett friends and colleagues agree on one thing: He will serve in the White House as long as Bush is president. And then, perhaps launch his own political career? "A lot of people have suggested he could," Martin said. "I don't think he's thinking he will. His goal has been all about the president."