Bush's inner circle of old Texas hands

His Cabinet may consist of Washington elite, but closest advisers are from home.

As leaders of a diverse nation, most presidents promise a Cabinet with geographic, racial, and ideological diversity. And so far, President-elect George W. Bush's appointments do reflect a desire to have an administration that, as President Clinton put it, "looks like America."

But look behind the curtains. President Kennedy had his Harvard boys, President Carter brought his "Georgia mafia," President Reagan had his "Kitchen Cabinet" of Californians, and Mr. Clinton brought more Arkansans than you could shake a stick (or a subpoena) at.

With Mr. Bush's transition in belated full swing, this same dynamic is coming into play. Consider appointments director Clay Johnson: He has known Bush since boarding school; or Karl Rove, Bush's first campaign manager in 1978; or Don Evans, an old oilfield buddy. Each is expected to play a prominent role in Bush's administration.

Clearly, the West Wing won't have been this full of Texans since Lyndon Johnson was showing off his scars.

It's this tight inner circle - and former members of his father's administration - who will help Bush make the transition from aggressive candidate to sitting president. So while the media are paying close attention to the inclusivity of Bush's Cabinet - Colin Powell as the first black secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as the first black woman to be national security adviser - it pays to take a closer look at the individuals who will undoubtedly have a profound influence on the 43rd president of the United States.

Bringing a close group of friends to Washington can be a "mixed blessing," says Robert Dallek, presidential historian at Boston University. Historically, presidential friends have thrown their weight around, and occasionally gotten themselves into scandals for selling influence.

"It was Warren G. Harding who said 'it's not my enemies but my friends who get me into hot water,' " says Dr. Dallek. "Not to suggest that a Bush administration would be prone to corruption [as Harding's was], but as a president, you've got to watch out for that. You have to protect the influence and power of the presidency."

As a self-described "loyalty enforcer" in his father's White House, George W. Bush was able to see how some of the most respected members of the Washington establishment often did not have his father's best interests at heart. Chief of Staff John Sununu, for instance, was fired (by George W. himself) for using the White House helicopter for personal golfing trips. The key, Bush learned in his two terms as Texas governor, was to surround himself with close friends who had one priority: George W. Bush.

"The three big things for George W. are talent, loyalty, and congeniality, and no two alone will do," says Bruce Buchanan, political scientist at University of Texas in Austin. "The trick will be integrating these old Texas hands with the Washington crowd."

But who are these Texas hands? Some are seasoned professionals in the art of politics; others are shrewd businessmen whose chief asset is their personal tie with Bush. Nearly all of Bush's inner circle, though, are people he has kept around him for most of his adult life.

The confidant

Probably the closest of Bush's confidants is Don Evans, a Midland, Texas, oil man, who served in the campaign as finance chairman. A friend who first invited Bush to a Bible study group, and who George once took on a hair-raising plane ride to demonstrate his pilot's skills, Evans knew Bush long before he showed an interest in politics. It was Evans who joked that "for the past 20 years, George has had the same friends and the same clothes."

"He dresses much better now," laughs Tom Schieffer, a friend of Evans and former co-partner with Bush of the Texas Rangers baseball team. "Donny and George are attracted to each other for who they are, not because of who George's father was or where Donny worked."

It is this personal loyalty and political disinterest that Bush seems to value most, friends say. While some see Evans serving as Bush's liaison to the business community, perhaps as Commerce secretary, friends say his chief role is as sounding board. At the end of the day, when other advisers are dismissed, Bush is most likely to call Evans and ask for advice.

The strategist

Driving Bush's political agenda will be Karl Rove, a political strategist who is credited with leading the realignment of all Texas' statewide offices from the Democrats to the Republicans in the past decade. Mr. Rove cut his teeth in national politics in the early 1970s as head of the Young Republicans when Bush's father was head of the Republican National Committee. He was once thought to have coveted the RNC job himself, but it appears he will be serving as an in-house political adviser.

"Karl is a brilliant strategist, and he exudes confidence," says Gaylord Armstrong, a friend of Bush's who lobbies for business groups in Austin. "He's seldom wrong, never in doubt, so to speak. Those people usually succeed."

The spinmeister

Shaping the way that political strategy is presented to the media will be Karen Hughes, who has served as Bush's main press spokeswoman throughout his presidential campaign and his tenure as governor. A brassy former TV reporter from Dallas, Hughes became a quotable spokeswoman for the Texas Republican Party in the early 1990s. When reporters needed a snappy one-liner about then-popular Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, they called Karen Hughes.

"There wasn't a day that we didn't have to deal with a Karen Hughesism," says Bill Crier, head of Ms. Richards' media team. "The press loved that. Whatever Ann Richards did or said, Karen would give them a zinger."

Hired by Bush in 1994, Hughes became such a central part of the governor's speech-writing and fast-response team that the governor told her he wouldn't run for president unless she came along. Known for correcting him during press conferences, she's also been criticized for strictly controlling the amount of access the media gets to Bush - a quality that will likely follow her to the White House.

"At the end of the day, they all protect Bush," says Harvey Kronberg, publisher of Quorum Report, a political newsletter.

The talent scout

The man who may bear the most responsibility for making sure Bush's staff doesn't let him down is high school chum Clay Johnson. Nicknamed "the Fridge" for his size and cool demeanor, Mr. Johnson is sifting through thousands of resumes to select appointees who will serve a Bush White House well, whether as Cabinet secretaries or as mail-room clerks. It's a job that Johnson performed during Bush's two terms as governor.

"There's always more places where you need good people than there are good people to fill them, and Clay just had this ability to find good people," says Tom Schieffer, the baseball team owner. "Clay's real strength ... is that he's never had a Clay Johnson agenda; it was always a George W. Bush agenda."

The insider

Surrounded by such talented and dedicated advisers, some presidents, like Jimmy Carter, disdained hiring insiders to guide them through the labyrinth of intrigues that is Washington politics. George W. Bush appears to have learned to avoid this mistake, and has hired Andrew Card to be his chief of staff.

A former Republican legislator with a pahk-your-cah Massachusetts accent, Card once served as former President Bush's secretary of Transportation. Described as a business advocate and a congenial pragmatist, Card has built a record of working with both parties in Washington.

"If you go back to 1993, the presidential transition from Bush to Clinton was very friendly and very productive, and the guy who ran it ... was Andy Card," says Ron Kaufman, former political director for President Bush and Card's brother-in-law. With Card in charge of the next Bush White House, the transition from Clinton to Bush should be just as smooth, Mr. Kaufman adds. "That good will will pay dividends from President Clinton on down."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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