Saturday, May 31, 2008

Inside man

White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten ’76 appears, for all intents and purposes, a rather modest man. He rarely talks in public, especially now that he is President Bush’s right-hand man. But for his alma mater, he made an exception.

Yesterday, Bolten returned to the Wilson School to participate in a panel discussion in front of a full audience in both Bowl 016 and the simulcast room, Bowl 002. McCormick Professor of Jursiprudence Robert George – whose predecessor Walter Murphy was Bolten’s thesis adviser – introduced him, and he responded politely, candidly and in great detail to questions posed by the audience and fellow panelists: emeritus politics professor Fred Greenstein, who taught nearly 30 years’ worth of students, including Bolten; and David Lewis, an associate politics professor who will be leaving Princeton for Vanderbilt next year.

Bolten, who was president of the Class of 1976 and of the Ivy Club while at the University, said that “Whatever my dreams and aspirations were” while he was an undergraduate at the Wilson School, “I had the fortune, in the jobs I’ve stumbled into, to exceed them.”

Bolten described his job as “the best job on the planet” and offered profuse praise of President Bush. What Bush wants, Bolten said, is “someone who would help him do his job, not do his job for him,” a role for chief of staff that Bolten agreed with.

Despite his access to Secret Service protection, the White House and the president, Bolten said, “I’m a staffer … and you have to be the kind of staffer that the boss wants.”

When Lewis asked him to comment about former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, Bolten was reluctant. He joked about it lightly first, then launched into a carefully worded commentary on the decision to dismiss McClellan. There were no details on why McClellan was not in the best interest of “the institution and the presidency,” but Bolten was, as always, earnest and unflustered. He managed to distill the political controversy into a matter of personality – in line with the work of his old professor Greenstein.

Indeed, when commenting personnel decisions in general, Bolten was surprisingly introspective, even sarcastically funny. Firings, he said, are “something I’m personally ill-suited to do. But I’ve had a lot of practice.”

The discussion offered an insider’s perspective on how the dynamics of the Oval Office play out – and not just in West Wing style, either. With Bush, Bolten said, political views are supposed to be divorced from policymaking. “I’ve seen the president get very angry on policy stuff when people bring up politics,” Bolten said.

This became an issue highlighted when the Bush administration decided to relieve famed strategist Karl Rove of policymaking duties. Bolten said that Rove’s views were too strong for him to be a “neutral arbiter in the policy process.”

“He took it reasonably well,” Bolten said. What “reasonably” means, I have no idea, though Bolten did mention that the media played it up a tad too much. Alas, don’t we always?

Bolten admitted to other mistakes. Prefacing the discussion by stating that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was “smeared” in Congress, Bolten said, “I may have erred to allow Alberto stay on as long as he did and let the smearing continue.”

He skipped the part about former Treasury Secretary John Snow “resigning” but spent a lot of time talking up how he and Bush managed to get former Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson to take the job, even though Paulson had refused a couple of times before. “If you live in New York, you think the president lives and breathes fire,” Bolten joked. “He said no at least twice, but I think we played him pretty well.”

He then emphasized Paulson’s contributions. “I think the U.S. economy owes him a great deal at this point.”

Other than that, Bolten mentioned little of the economy. He did, however, list his own concerns and disappointments. He is unhappy that by the end of the Bush administration there will have been little reform on social security or immigration policy. His biggest disappointment is that the current administration has failed to quell (and perhaps has flared) the partisan divide in Washington. He is worried that there isn’t enough time between the appointment of new cabinet members and inaugurations for the outgoing White House staffers to debrief the new ones.

But he ended on a positive note, with a whimsical story. As a junior staffer in the White House on the last day of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Bolten was the last one to leave the building. Every office was empty. “It’s a remarkable credit to our democracy that we can peaceably and orderly replace the governing structure overnight,” he said.

“As the gates had closed behind me,” Bolten said, he realized, “I could not get back if I wanted to, even if I had left my wallet.” Of course, he did return, and will leave again soon. Perhaps on his Harley-Davidson.