WASHINGTON—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."
That's not likely to happen anytime soon. Card has anchored the White House through every crisis, and every success, since President Bush took office. He's the man who whispered "America is under attack" into Bush's ear on Sept. 11, 2001, as the president was reading aloud to schoolchildren in Florida.
More recently, Card steered the White House staff through the administration's fumbling response to Hurricane Katrina and the collapsed Dubai Ports World deal. And if he owns a share of the blame for the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, then he also deserves some of the credit for helping John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito win their seats on the highest bench.
Somehow, Card keeps a low profile even at the center of the storm. He gets to work at 5:30 a.m., stays until the president retires for the night and generally makes the White House machinery run quietly and methodically, just like him.
For Card, it's not about pushing a particular policy or basking in the spotlight. It's about efficiently serving the president.
"He shows the original `passion for anonymity' that the designers of the White House executive office envisioned," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "He's kept his head down through various crises. He's come through pretty clean. You don't see his tracks on anything, which I guess is good work for a chief of staff in this administration. He's been a great soldier on behalf of the president."
Card, 58, is on course to become by this September the longest-serving chief of staff ever, eclipsing Sherman Adams, who held the job for five years and nine months under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"Unlike some chiefs of staff, he's made few enemies because he's such a nice guy," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's former press secretary. "John Sununu (chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush) couldn't let anyone see the president unless he was in the room. Andy will bring everybody into the room to air their thoughts to the president. He doesn't keep people out for the sake of keeping people out."
Card shares responsibility for the entire Bush record, but after a first term filled with bold strokes and considerable success, Bush has stumbled through a lackluster second term marked by failures, from Social Security privatization to the collapsed ports deal. Critics say Card needs to shake things up—possibly starting with him—to re-energize a demoralized administration.
"It seemed to me there was an opportunity to bring new life into the White House. You can't operate on a 24-7 clock and not lose energy," said Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. "I'm not saying replace Card, but bring in some new people. He (Bush) is a loyal guy, likes his comfort zone and doesn't like to make changes. But it doesn't give the president any new ideas."
Card bristles at such criticism. He notes that there've been several key shifts of personnel: Claude Allen stepped down as domestic policy adviser; Margaret Spellings, Allen's predecessor, became education secretary; and Condoleezza Rice moved from national security adviser to secretary of state.
"There's been quite a bit of change, but the change has not been disruptive," Card said. "One objective I have is to make sure that the gears of the administration are always efficient. And I think they have been efficient."
But Allen, who was the White House's highest-ranking African-American official, appears to have left under duress when he resigned abruptly on Feb. 2. He was arrested by Montgomery County, Md., police last week and charged in a felony theft scheme in connection with receiving phony refunds at suburban Maryland department stores on Jan. 2.
Law enforcement officials also allege that Allen, 45, in at least 25 incidents received a total of $5,000 in refunds for merchandise he didn't buy from Target and Hecht's stores in the area.
Allen had been under investigation since January, but when he resigned he said he wanted to spend more time with his family. Allen told Card and White House Counsel Harriet Miers that the January incident was a misunderstanding, administration officials said.
Bush expressed sadness and hurt about Allen's arrest Saturday.
"If the allegations are true, Claude Allen did not tell my chief of staff and legal counsel the truth, and that's deeply disappointing," he said. "If the allegations are true, something went wrong in Claude Allen's life, and that is really sad."
With a cheerful, self-effacing style that belies nearly four decades in the sharp-elbowed arenas of Massachusetts and Washington politics, Card downplays his significance, seeing himself as "a pawn on somebody else's chessboard."
Friends say such modesty has always marked Card's character, from his youth in Massachusetts, as a student at the University of South Carolina, as a McDonalds night manager in Columbia, S.C., as a lawmaker in the Massachusetts state House, as a top White House aide to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as secretary of transportation in 1992-93, and as the Washington representative for General Motors in the `90s.
Modest, but behind the scenes in today's White House, it's Card who moves the pawns around with a firm but friendly hand, according to people who've worked there with him.
Card says he operates the White House "a little differently than you would find in most political science courses." He says he took lessons while working in the White House under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, serving chiefs of staff who had varying styles, from diplomatic James Baker to the authoritarian Sununu.
He breaks his job into several categories. First is "the care and feeding of the president," where Card makes sure that Bush is scheduled for important events and also has time for ordinary tasks such as daily exercise and haircuts.
Card's also the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, ensuring that Bush connects with the right people and receives enough information to help him make informed decisions.
"It's a need-based permission," Card said. "I do not sit outside the Oval Office with a turnstile, saying `You have permission to go in.' I count on people recognizing the difference between want and need."
He's also a foreman, making sure that the rest of the White House staff is on task and on message in communicating policy to the rest of the administration, Congress, America and the world.
Last, Card is a cheerleader, infusing enthusiasm among the White House staff, from the Marine who stands guard outside the West Wing to key Bush advisers, reminding them that it's a privilege to work there and that each person does important work for the president.
"I watched gatekeepers and I know this president," Card said. "He likes an open door in a relatively flat organizational chart. He likes to be able to hold people accountable. ... I maintain a chain of command, but I do not limit access."
That style helped the administration rack up a string of successes last year, Card said, pointing to elections in Iraq, passage of the Medicare prescription drug plan, renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act and the successful judicial nominations of Roberts and Alito.
But the record, like any president's, has been uneven. Iraq may be spiraling toward civil war. The prescription drug plan has been plagued by myriad problems. Then there were Katrina, Miers and the Dubai ports deal. Together they fueled talk that the White House had become politically tone deaf and that Bush operates inside a bubble that shields him from dissent and unpleasant realities.
Card dismisses such criticism.
"I think he's been well informed by a very competent staff that includes people (with) a breadth of experience and a breadth of knowledge, so he does not get monolithic advice," he said.
Card's friends say history will be kind to Bush and appreciative of Card's quiet impact on his administration.
"He's the longest-serving chief of staff of all time," said Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist and Card friend. "Maybe now they'll talk about the Andy Card model of chief of staff—deferential, sure-footed, methodical and fair."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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