White House

Bush's prep-school buddy sticks by him in Washington

Clay Johnson on his office balcony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Clay Johnson on his office balcony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — They first met as 15-year-old classmates at Phillips Academy Andover, an exclusive Massachusetts prep school half-a-continent away from their home state of Texas. It was the start of an enduring friendship that strengthened over the years, from Yale University to their neighborhood in Dallas and ultimately to Austin and Washington.

For 46 years, Clay Johnson III has always been there for his old fraternity brother, George W. Bush. He's still within easy reach today as the one of the few remaining members of a Texas cadre that followed Bush from the statehouse in Austin to the White House in Washington.

As deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Johnson is hardly a staple on the Sunday talk shows. He's always been far less visible than now-departed members of Bush's Texas entourage, such as political guru Karl Rove and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

But the Fort Worth native's unglamorous title and self-imposed low profile mask what Bush insiders describe as Johnson's influential relationship with the president, built largely on the friendship that started in 1961 at one of the country's most prestigious boarding schools.

"His influence now is probably much broader than his current title suggests," said former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. He described the 61-year-old Johnson as "one of the very few people" known to have the Bushes over for an occasional dinner.

After amassing a solid resume in the corporate world, Johnson served as appointments director and chief of staff to Bush when he was governor of Texas. When Bush won the presidency in 2000, Johnson followed him to Washington — first as executive director of the transition team, then as the personnel chief charged with filling more than 4,000 government positions.

In his current job, Johnson is the president's point man for the daunting task of making the federal government more effective. He works out of a spacious second-floor office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. He is one of a handful of people who can see the president without an appointment.

"He's somebody who the president confides in and can bounce things off of and know that he can get an honest reaction from Clay," said Dan Bartlett, another Texan who stepped down this year as a Bush senior adviser. "Sometimes that's hard to find in Washington."

In an interview, Johnson acknowledged that he has occasionally "invited myself over for a lunch" with the president, sometimes socially, other times to "bend his ear" on an official matter.

"A couple of times I have ventured or suggested a few things to him," Johnson said. "He doesn't like to be lobbied, but if you have a good idea, let him know what your idea is and thank you very much. A few of the ideas he's followed through on ... and sought to implement them. Most of the others, he appreciated my interest but had something else he wanted to do."

Johnson's wife, Anne Sewell Johnson, director of the U.S. State Department's "Art in Embassies" program, is close friends with first lady Laura Bush. The two couples get together socially and "stay in touch pretty regularly," Johnson said. Sometimes, Bush will call "spur of the moment" to ask the Johnsons to come over for dinner or a movie, he said. The Johnsons also have been weekend guests at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.

As a close friend and George Bush observer for more than four decades, Johnson is admittedly biased. He says that the president retains a strength of character and resolve that he's had since his teenage days — especially now, while under siege politically.

"He's handling it, in my opinion, so well personally," Johnson said. "He is not a fretter, he is not a hand-wringer. ... He's very positive, very upbeat. ... That's the kind of person he was at 15."

Johnson and Bush were among about 750 students at Andover at the dawn of the 1960s, and they forged a bond through their home-state connection. Johnson came from a wealthy Fort Worth oil and ranching family. Bush's father, future President George H. W. Bush, was then head of Houston-based oil company Zapata Offshore.

"There were only like about 18 of us from Texas," Johnson recalled. "We were all homesick, and all of us were in over our heads academically, and I'm sure it wasn't any of our ideas to go away to school. ... You start looking up all the Texans — you know, misery loves company — so we all connected with each other.

"To know George Bush is to really like him a lot, and we struck up a friendship pretty quickly," Johnson said. They were also "meagerly talented" members of the school basketball team, he recalled.

Another Andover alum, Randall Roden, now a lawyer in Raleigh, N.C., recalled that Johnson, though good-natured, was always "fairly quiet and serious" while Bush was the outgoing prankster and commissioner of the school's stickball league.

Johnson and Bush roomed together at Yale. They were also fellow members of Delta Kappa Epsilon, also known as "Dekes." After graduating, Bush went to business school at Harvard, while Johnson received a master's degree from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in Cambridge, Mass.

Johnson then began a corporate journey as an executive at PepsiCo's Frito Lay, Wilson Sporting Goods and Citicorp. He also was president of Neiman-Marcus' Horchow Mail Order and was chief operating officer of the Dallas Museum of Art.

The Bushes and the Johnsons lived two blocks apart in Dallas from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s, when Bush ran for governor and recruited his old classmate into his statehouse administration.

In his current job, Johnson chairs the President's Management Council and is charged with overseeing a goal-oriented transformation of the federal bureaucracy. By teaming with federal employees, OMB has taken aim at more than 1,000 federal programs over the past four years, displaying accomplishments and rankings on Web sites called "expectmore.gov." and "results.gov."

Johnson acknowledged that "we haven't slain all the dragons yet," but about 80 percent of the programs now have clear goals, compared with only about half when he started.

Tom Schatz, president of the Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative watchdog group, gives Johnson high marks, calling him "the right person for that position." The program, he said, "has been very helpful in the effort to make the government more accountable."

Johnson said he's prepared to go the distance with his old friend until Bush leaves office in January 2009. He said he's content to stay in his current role as Bush's dragon slayer against bureaucratic bloat, but adds: "If the president wants me to do something else, I will do whatever he wants."