All presidents have strategies. All work hard to follow them. Success in executing them requires finding a way to quickly adapt existing strategies to new world events—to keep those events from pulling the manager away from the principal goals. For Bush, the key to adhering to his strategy and message lies in his relentless discipline. Nowhere is that discipline more important than in Bush’s penchant for punctuality.
Bush insists on starting meetings promptly and ending them on time. He doesn’t suffer aides who arrive late. In Texas, Karl Rove once upset Bush by leaving a meeting to take a cell phone call. Bush promptly locked the door on him so he couldn’t get back in.
Early in the administration, Karen Hughes received a presidential glower for being 10 minutes late for a meeting on social security. She told the president that she had been briefing the press on Dick Cheney’s health; it proved a barely good enough excuse. Staff members are expected to be present and on time for meetings that start each day at 7:00 a.m.
The contrast with the Clinton years could not be greater. Meetings almost always started late—but it was hard to figure out just how late. On the other end, Clinton’s intellectual curiosity pushed discussions into intricate details, and that played havoc with his schedule. When members of Congress came to the White House for meetings, they often had to block out at least half a day because the timetable was so unpredictable. According to a Democratic strategist who worked on the Clinton campaign, “The omnipresent feeling was confusion. We weren’t at all used to the rhythm of executive leadership. The Bush team is.”
In sharp contrast, House leaders Dick Gephardt and Trent Lott were stunned by their Oval Office meeting with Bush in the administration’s first days. At this meeting, Bush was warm, but he spent little time on small talk. Instead, he worked briskly through the agenda. He listened as much as he talked, and when he listened he listened carefully. The meeting started and ended on time. The leaders were soon back in their Capitol Hill offices, stunned at the contrast with the typical approach of the Clinton administration. Bush’s discipline included a new approach to members of Congress.
In part, this was Bush’s natural politeness and instinct for courtesy. In the campaign, he pledged to return civility to the White House, and punctuality was part of his effort. But just as much, it was a reflection of Bush’s personal discipline. He doesn’t like his time wasted and doesn’t want to waste the time of others. He believes in focusing quickly on the decision at hand, getting the job done, and then moving on to the next agenda item. For Bush, it’s an important signal that he values and respects those he meets with. Keeping himself on time helps him focus on the key issues.