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Inside the White House, time itself is a'changin'

In a radical departure from the last administration, Bush is ... punctual. It's one small way his team is trying for a running start.

By / January 24, 2001



Talk about radical change at the White House.

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After eight years of "Clinton time," in which the former president regularly showed up anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours late for appointments, Washington is making the adjustment to "Bush time." Punctuality, it's clear, is the new internal rhythm of the West Wing.

Under George W. Bush, an event planned for 9:05 a.m. means it happens at 9:05 a.m., if not a few minutes earlier. And while this may not seem like a significant change to outsiders, it makes a huge difference at the White House, where a president's time - and that of his high-powered guests - is precious.

The change is so noticeable that, after Republican congressional leaders had their first lunch with the new president this week, they couldn't help marveling. "What I really like is we started on time and we ended on time," said Senate majority leader Trent Lott. "I mean, at 1 o'clock, the meeting was over."

From the scent of fresh paint that permeates the West Wing to the ivory replacement rug in the Oval Office, a tangible feeling of new beginnings permeates the White House. The atmosphere is one of focus, precision, and seriousness - a far cry from the chaos that marked the start of the Clinton administration.

While the president himself appears a bit nervous in his new job, fidgeting with a paper clip while talking with education leaders, or sticking to the script at formal events, he's nonetheless setting the tone for his administration. At an East Room swearing-in ceremony for his senior advisers Monday morning, he demanded high standards and ethical behavior, civility, and an unrelenting focus on their goals.

Mr. Bush himself started the week with some serious issues. He unveiled his education-reform package yesterday, issued an executive order related to abortion on Monday, and met with political and education leaders. Normally he jokes with the press, but so far, he's been all business.

So is his staff. Margaret LaMontagne, who was at the swearing-in, said she planned to skip most of a reception for the new team and their families. The new domestic policy director said she was too busy working on education reform to do more than drop by.

"We are rock and rollin' from day one," said Ms. LaMontagne.

Indeed, Chief of Staff Andrew Card had already gathered the senior advisers on Sunday - when the paint was still wet and technicians were still untangling miles of computer cable.

Of course, some ramp-up time is needed. People are very much in that stage of putting new names with new faces. Take the security staff. At the guard station leading into the Oval Office hallway, a large photo of the extended Bush clan is placed under the desktop's protective glass covering. Every person in the photograph, which looks as if it was taken at the Bushes' seaside compound in Maine, has been labeled.

New White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, meanwhile, had his own set of problems. Cutting into the tape on a stack of white moving boxes, he commented that he still hadn't found the flack jacket handed down from the previous administration. It's tradition that the old press secretary places a note in the pocket of a bullet-proof vest for the new press secretary. "Put out an APB," he grinned. "The flack jacket is missing."

On a more serious note, the press office printer wasn't working Monday morning - a grave problem indeed, considering the paper tsunamis the office releases every day. While technicians wrestled with the printer, three black phones in the corner rang and rang, but there weren't enough people to answer them.

Still, it was a minor miracle that the daily recorded message of the president's schedule, an essential planning tool for the media, was fully operational Monday morning. Mr. Fleischer, following his boss's mandate, began his briefing on time (OK, he was 10 minutes late, but that's nothing). And the all-important printer? It was churning out those presidential statements by noon.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society