Bush decided to run his Oval Office so that his five closest White House aides could see him at any point, without having to go through anyone first. The five insider players were:
Andrew H. Card, Jr., chief of staff. Card served Bush 41 as secretary of transportation and, before that, as deputy chief of staff. He was President Reagan’s liaison to the nation’s governors and mayors. During the Clinton years, he headed the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the trade association for the nation’s car makers. As chief of staff, he has served as Bush 43’s process manager, to make sure that things needing to get done are done. But he was not the gatekeeper to the Oval Office.
Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser. She formerly was provost—the chief operating officer—at Stanford University. During the first Bush administration, she worked on the National Security Council as the president’s adviser on Soviet and East European affairs. Rice joined the Bush campaign early in the race and visited Austin often to tutor the candidate on foreign policy. It was little surprise, therefore, that she moved to Washington to head the NSC. She has carefully worked to balance the foreign policy advice the president receives. She usually holds her counsel until after everyone has left and the president is weighing his decisions.
Ari Fleischer, press secretary. Before joining the Bush presidential campaign in the fall of 1999, Fleischer was communications director for Elizabeth Dole’s unsuccessful White House run. He worked on Capitol Hill as press secretary for Senator Pete Domenici (R., N.M.) and then as spokesman for the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. He proved tough in dealing with reporters in the always rough-and-tumble daily press briefings, and worked constantly to make sure his words framed the message.
Karen Hughes, counselor to the president. Hughes has had one of the longest and closest relationships with Bush. She was a former television reporter and executive director of the Texas Republican Party, and a member of the Bush team since he took the governorship. Insiders ranked her with Karl Rove as the president’s closest advisers, and they say she knows Bush so well she can finish his sentences for him. When she left the White House to move her family back to Austin, analysts wondered how her departure would affect the team. She remained in close telephone contact with Bush and visited Washington often to share her advice.
Karl Rove, senior White House adviser. Close observers have called Rove “Bush’s brain,” for his uncanny political instincts and his ability to shape Bush’s strategy. As head of his own Austin-based public affairs company, Rove masterminded Bush’s gubernatorial runs. Texas law required an arm’s-length relationship between the public office and political teams, so Rove did not work in the Bush governor’s office. In the White House, however, there is a “permanent campaign,” as political scientist Charles O. Jones has put it, and Rove has been Bush’s guru for that campaign.
A sixth key adviser completes Bush’s inner circle:
Richard B. Cheney, vice president. Cheney is a seasoned Washington hand, having served as chief of staff in the Ford administration, a member of the House of Representatives, and secretary of defense during the first Bush administration. Cheney had sometimes scrapped with Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense for Bush 43, but his experience allowed him to go toe-to-toe with the capital’s most powerful insiders. Bush has relied heavily on him for his political and policy judgment.
A close look at Team Bush reveals several important facts. All were strong and experienced players before he chose them. As presidential expert Charles O. Jones warns, “Working in the White House should not be your first job.” The team members earned their chops in tough political combat. And while only some of them had worked with each other before, Bush had developed close working relationships with each of them. As Karl Rove explained, “Bush has tended to surround himself with people he’s taken the measure of.”
The process worked so seamlessly for Team Bush that it’s hard to imagine an alternative. But the Clinton team operated quite differently. Clinton chose his team members more to represent important constituencies than because of their relationship with him. Hired because of what they knew and who they represented, they were harder to corral and focus. Leaks proliferated and staff-level tugs-of-war were common. Bush managed to avoid most of those snags.
Unlike some presidents who came into office with trusted advisers with little experience, or experienced advisers without a personal relationship with the president, Team Bush started with a truly unusual combination of trust and expertise. Some presidents spend the first months trying to get their team to mesh. Bush’s reliance on team members he already knew and trusted, coupled with his spokes-of-the-wheel strategy, gave Team Bush a running start and ensured few snags. Few White House teams in memory got such a fast launch or worked with so few bumps.