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The Card Sacrifice

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 28, 2006; 12:54 PM

Sacrificing Andy Card, his longtime chief of staff, is President Bush's way of responding to the growing complaints about the administration's competence.

The botched response to Hurricane Katrina, the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the rocky relations with the Republican Congress -- all of these are seen at least in part as failures of execution. And execution is the chief of staff's job.

But Card's departure in no way addresses the two even more fundamental areas where Bush is vulnerable: His decisions and his credibility.

In most White Houses, the chief of staff is a godlike figure, putting his stamp on the presidency in almost every conceivable way. But in the Bush White House, political guru Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney loom much larger and have way more to do with what the president says and does than Card ever did. As long as they stay put, the rest may largely be window dressing.

Card was extremely popular with his staff and oversaw the most buttoned-down, leak-proof, on-time, on-message White House in history. But he was not a big influence on Bush. He was more like Bush's nanny.

Card spent many hours of his legendarily long work days aggressively monitoring -- and limiting -- the information flow to the president. "The president has to have time to eat, sleep and be merry, or he'll make angry, grumpy decisions," Card said in a 2004 radio interview described in this column . "So I have to make sure he has time to eat, sleep and be merry. But I also have to make sure he has the right time to do the right thing for the country, and that he gets the right information in time, rather than too late."

Replacing Card with Joshua B. Bolten does not in any way satisfy the demands of those who were calling for new blood at the White House. Bolten was policy director of the 2000 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign and has been a top Bush aide since January 2001. He was Card's deputy chief of staff before taking his current job as director of the White House's budget office.

In this morning's Oval Office announcement , Bush hugged Card and called him a close friend while keeping Bolten at arm's length and describing him as "a man with broad experience, having worked on Capitol Hill and Wall Street and the White House staff."

But in June 2003 , upon announcing Bolten's nomination to the budget post, Bush described Bolten as "one of my closest and most trusted advisers." And their relationship has only deepened since.

Of course, Card's departure could be the beginning of a much wider shakeup.

Peter Baker and Debbi Wilgoren write for The Washington Post: "The move could presage broader staff changes as Bolten takes over an operation hobbled by political problems heading into a crucial midterm election season. . . .

"Card has held the top staff job at the White House longer than any person since Sherman Adams under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and had earned enormous respect within the building and around Washington for his calm professionalism and stamina. But his stewardship of the Bush team had come under question in recent months after a series of mishaps. . . .

"Bush said Card had approached him earlier this month about the possibility of stepping down, and Bush accepted his offer this weekend, when the two were at Camp David. . . .

"Card, 59, has been the focal point of much discussion in Washington about how physically and politically exhausted the White House staff must be in the sixth year of a presidency buffeted by recession, terrorism and war."

Rose Garden Statement

Bush also made a brief statement in the Rose Garden after his cabinet meeting this morning, but rather than talk about the staff shakeup or answer reporters' questions, he just previewed tomorrow's speech about Iraq:

"During Saddam Hussein's brutal rule he exploited the ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq by setting communities against one another. And now the terrorists and former regime elements are doing the same -- they're trying to set off a civil war through acts of sectarian violence," Bush said.

"I'll remind the people we're not going to lose our nerve."

Who Is Josh Bolten?

After Bolten was nominated as budget director in 2003, Mike Allen of The Washington Post described him as a "tight-lipped policy technician . . . so immersed in detail that one presidential adviser jokes that he must read the Federal Register at bedtime."

Among Bolten's major achievements as deputy chief of staff: "He had a leading hand in drawing up Bush's economic proposals and plans for the new Department of Homeland Security."

His nomination at the time was hailed by conservatives, who saw him as a true believer.

Bolten's main task in his new job was putting together -- then trying to spin -- the notoriously unrealistic annual presidential budget requests.

As Dana Milbank wrote in early 2005, after Bolten held an hour-long briefing on Bush's 2006 budget: "The theme repeated itself throughout Bolten's briefing: Potential good news was embraced, and potential bad news was left out of the equation."

Here is Bolten's official bio .

Who Was Andy Card?

William Douglas took a stab at profiling the unforthcoming chief of staff for Knight Ridder Newspapers just two weeks ago, and wrote: "White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card sometimes sounds like a man about to lose his job.

" 'I serve at the pleasure of the president for the time being,' Card said during a recent interview in his spacious office, just down the hall from the Oval one. 'If the pleasure goes, I go. If the time being arrives, I'm gone. And I don't expect a month's notice or two weeks' notice.' "

Mark Leibovich wrote about the "aggressively lowfalutin" Card's amazing memory techniques in The Washington Post last year.

Here's my own brief bio of Card.

Card may be best known by the public for his role on Sept. 11, 2001, informing Bush that a second hijacked plane had struck the World Trade Center in New York. Bush himself mentioned it this morning, noting Card's service "on a terrible day when America was attacked."

Bush was seated in a classroom of second graders in a Florida classroom, reading a children's book, when Card came up and whispered to him: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."

But quite notably, Card didn't say: Mr. President, you'd better come and do something about it. And Bush remained frozen in his seat for seven minutes.

Bush Cozying Up to Reporters

At the same time that the Bush administration is publicly attacking the press for ignoring good news out of Iraq, and the White House continues to duck questions about critical issues, the president himself has launched a personal and off-the-record charm offensive.

It's a wonderful way for him to distract journalists from the central question of his presidency -- his loss of credibility. He has the reporters over to his residence, schmoozes them, asks them about their family.

Bush knows that demanding answers from the president without appearing to be disrespectful to the office is a challenge for White House reporters. Add the fact that he seems like such a nice guy and he knows your kid's name, that just makes it even harder.

I'm told that the off-the-record meetings were originally intended as get-to-know-you sessions just for the new people on the White House beat -- but so many of the regulars caught wind of it that they all started bugging press secretary Scott McClellan, who opened it up to a wider group.

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "As he defends his Iraq policy with a public campaign of speeches and a recent news conference, President Bush also has been waging a private campaign that has included off-the-record sessions with White House reporters, sources said yesterday. . . .

"Last week's session involved reporters from several prominent broadcast and print outlets, including ABC News and The Washington Post. Under the off-the-record ground rules, the journalists were barred from reporting what was discussed. White House officials said they also hoped the meetings' mere existence would remain under wraps. That proved impossible when journalists from The Post who were not participants in the session, as well as those at other publications, learned of the meetings from sources outside the paper and began to report on them. . . .

"Off-the-record sessions with presidents are somewhat controversial in journalism circles. Critics say reporters should not subject themselves to being influenced or 'spun' under ground rules that prevent the comments from being relayed to the public. But many news organizations say the sessions give reporters a rare opportunity to observe the president up close and to gain insight into his thinking and concerns."

Katharine Q. Seelye writes in the New York Times: "The meetings, which the journalists have agreed not to describe publicly, have been in the White House residence. . . .

"David Bohrman, the Washington bureau chief for CNN, one of whose reporters attended a session, said they were a good idea.

" 'Most of the time, the environments that our reporters deal with the president in are very structured, very managed, and they rarely get to just kick back and have a conversation,' he said. 'I think there's a lot of value in it for both sides.' . . .

"The New York Times, which was invited to attend a session today, has declined to participate.

"Philip Taubman, the Washington bureau chief for The Times, said in a statement last night: 'The Times has declined this opportunity after weighing the potential benefits to our readers against the prospect of withholding information from them about the discussion with Mr. Bush. As a matter of policy and practice, we would prefer when possible to conduct on-the-record interviews with public officials.' . . .

"One reporter who attended a recent session said Mr. Bush had appeared relaxed and seemed to enjoy showing the group around the residence. They met in the yellow oval room and were taken out on the Truman balcony. A few of Mr. Bush's aides were present as the reporters were served iced tea, water and soda and chatted for about an hour."

Joe Strupp writes for Editor and Publisher: " 'It was very pleasant, he seemed very thoughtful and frank,' said Stephan Dinan, a Washington Times reporter and one of about six reporters who took part in a session Monday afternoon. 'It was on a wide range of stuff.' . . .

"A scribe who attended a session last Thursday called it 'a little surreal. . . . He wants to chew the fat,' the reporter said. 'He asked about our backgrounds, our families. He wanted to be informal, but it couldn't be, because of who he is.' "

Test of Executive Power

The Supreme Court today hears oral arguments in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the former chauffeur of Osama bin Laden now imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Charles Lane wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that Hamdan's case is "one of the most important of Bush's presidency. It is a challenge to the broad vision of presidential power that Bush has asserted since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"In blunt terms, Hamdan's brief calls on the court to stop 'this unprecedented arrogation of power.' Just as urgently, the administration's brief urges the court not to second-guess the decisions of the commander in chief while 'the armed conflict against al Qaeda remains ongoing.' "

Joan Biskupic writes in USA Today: "Besides testing a key part of the White House's legal strategy in the war on terrorism, the case has become an important barometer of judges' authority to review presidential actions during wartime.

Gina Holland writes for the Associated Press: "Hamdan is among about 490 foreigners being held as 'enemy combatants' at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ten of the men, including Hamdan, have been charged with crimes."

Charles Lane writes in today's Washington Post: "On the eve of oral argument in a key Supreme Court case on the rights of alleged terrorists, a group of retired U.S. generals and admirals has asked Justice Antonin Scalia to recuse himself, arguing that his recent public comments on the subject make it impossible for him to appear impartial. . . .

"Scalia's speech was first reported by Newsweek 's Web site on Sunday."

Immigration Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "A key Senate panel broke with the House's get-tough approach to illegal immigration yesterday and sent to the floor a broad revision of the nation's immigration laws that would provide lawful employment to millions of undocumented workers while offering work visas to hundreds of thousands of new immigrants every year.

"With bipartisan support, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12 to 6 to side with President Bush's general approach to an immigration issue that is dividing the country, fracturing the Republican Party and ripening into one of the biggest political debates of this election year. Conservatives have loudly demanded that the government tighten control of U.S. borders and begin deporting illegal immigrants. But in recent weeks, the immigrant community has risen up in protest, marching by the hundreds of thousands to denounce what they see as draconian measures under consideration in Washington."

Rachel L. Swarns writes in the New York Times: "Any legislation that passes the Senate will have to be reconciled with the tough border security bill passed in December by the Republican-controlled House, which defied President Bush's call for a temporary worker plan.

"The Senate panel's plan, which also includes provisions to strengthen border security, was quickly hailed by Democrats, a handful of Republicans and business leaders, as well as by the immigrant advocacy organizations and church groups that have sent tens of thousands of supporters of immigrant rights into the streets of a number of cities to push for such legislation in recent days. . . .

"Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said Monday night that President Bush was 'pleased to see the Senate moving forward on legislation.' Mr. Bush has repeatedly called for a temporary worker program that would legalize the nation's illegal immigrants, though he has said such a plan must not include amnesty."

Here's the text of Bush's speech on immigration yesterday.

'Don't Underestimate Me, Pepe'

Bush yesterday held a half-hour roundtable interview with the Mexican and Canadian press in anticipation of Thursday's trilateral discussions in Cancun.

Here's one exchange with José Carreño Figueras , also known as Pepe, from Mexico's El Universal newspaper:

"Q The question would be, though -- if you excuse me, a few months ago, or a year ago, you said that you would invest political capital in the issue of -- the immigration issue. . . .

"Yet in the last couple of weeks, there have been a lot of people in this town talking that your political capital is wasted. So --

"THE PRESIDENT: Don't underestimate me, Pepe.

"Q No, I don't. But --

"THE PRESIDENT: Okay. (Laughter.)

"Q Is this Congress underestimating you? Because --

"THE PRESIDENT: We'll see."

Blair Memo Watch

Here's Scott McClellan ducking questions about the British memo described in the New York Times yesterday.

" Q Let me ask you a more fundamental question. The President -- according to this report of this memo -- said to Prime Minister Blair that he didn't expect that there would be any sectarian violence. That's obviously proven -- he was disproven. That is, in fact, the case that there is sectarian violence. Some worry about the prospects of civil war.

"My question, though, is the President's judgments, this administration's judgments about the war that did not come to pass, that created a credibility problem with the American people with regard to how they view this war, does that not hurt the President when he now says, we need patience and we have to persevere?

" MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, you made a very long statement there, and I'm not accepting the premise of the beginning of your question that that's an accurate reflection of things. We've talked about what we anticipated and what we didn't anticipate and what we prepared for.

"And I think credibility is about doing what you say you're going to do. We did what we said we were going to do. Tyrants around the world know that we mean what we say, because we followed through on the resolution that was passed at the Security Council and held Saddam Hussein's regime to account. And he has been removed from power. The world is better off because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power."

Censure Watch

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Friday hearing on Sen. Russell Feingold's resolution to censure President Bush for authorizing warrantless surveillance of Americans' international phone calls and e-mails."

The issue should also get an airing this morning in a separate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Abramoff (Non) Watch

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush expressed support on Monday for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, who is under pressure over his links with Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist at the heart of an influence-peddling scandal.

"Speaking at a fund-raising event for Burns' re-election campaign at a Washington hotel, Bush praised the Montana lawmaker as a strong supporter on national security and tax relief."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks.

"I kind of like being on the same platform as Senator Burns because he makes me sound like Shakespeare," Bush said.

Signing Statements Watch

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Two senior Democratic House members yesterday demanded that President Bush withdraw his assertion that he can ignore portions of the USA Patriot Act calling on him to provide periodic reports to Congress on how new law-enforcement tactics are being used."

The Sad Lot of the White House Press Corps

Michael Learmonth writes in Variety: "White House correspondent once was considered the premier job for journalism's best and brightest -- and a stepping stone to bigger things, as people like Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson parlayed their role into news stardom."

But no more.

"With unprecedented message discipline and a dearth of free agents willing to divulge real information, the Bush administration has brought a new level of frustration to the beat. While the heady act of walking through the White House gates to work can sustain some reporters for a career, the cloistered atmosphere can be dispiriting. . . .

" 'It's confining, both physically and intellectually,' says ABC's Terry Moran, who left the White House beat to join 'Nightline.' 'You're cooped up in a bubble all the time; they herd you like sheep. You're always focused on this one person and the administration. The president makes news by saying and doing things, so your stories are often, "The president did this today." '

"So meaningless are the daily disgorgements from the White House that [CBS News anchor Bob] Schieffer says he's contemplated sending an intern there to take notes and sending the reporters to Capitol Hill, where there are 535 members of Congress, all with their own agendas and motivations to talk."

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