WASHINGTON — Then, as now, Andrew Card is the keeper of the clock.
When President Bush's chief of staff was a boy growing up in Holbrook, Mass., he got paid $50 a year to wind the massive timepiece in the steeple of the local Methodist church. To keep the big hands ticking, he'd climb high into the 158-foot tower to tend the huge gears and wheels.
Since then, his talents and experience have led him to the preeminent job of running the White House, but he still considers managing minutes and seconds his paramount task.
"The most valuable thing that we have control over is the president's time," says Mr. Card, relaxing in a striped wingback in his West Wing corner office. "And if the president's time slips into anarchy, his presidency can slip into anarchy."
Much has been made of the Bush team's efficiency - of its Timex-like precision and near-lock-step unity. But in a White House of strong personalities, Card's humble demeanor is proving to be a crucial counterweight. So far, he has kept the powerful cogs of the Bush team - Vice President Dick Cheney, counselor Karen Hughes, strategist Karl Rove, and others - clicking and meshing.
He does it, current and former colleagues say, with a unique mix of politeness and well-timed bluntness. Card is a compulsive thank-you-note writer. He seldom, if ever, curses. He'll chat with secretaries while waiting outside the offices of powerful people. All in all, he lubricates the Bush operation with big doses of courtesy and candor, high expectations and humility.
"Some people manage by fear, others manage by respect," says vice presidential counselor Mary Matalin. "With Andy, it's all about respect."
It appears to be working. Though the Bush team has been criticized for some policies, it's gotten high marks for efficiency - despite the slowed transition stemming from the post-election quagmire.
It is early, of course. The 43rd presidency hasn't even reached its 100th day. The team hasn't faced many major crises - or had to hash out big new policies.
Yet an element in its success so far may be Card's humbleness. In his third week on the job, for instance, Card gave an interview that sparked the headline "Bush to close offices on AIDS, race." Amid the fury that erupted, Card admitted he'd made "a mistake" - a rare move for a chief of staff. But it helped cut short the furor and demonstrated Card's modesty and loyalty to the Bush cause.
"As a chief of staff, it's hard to remember the president is chief and you're the staff," says Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House 2001 Project.
Bitten by the political bug
Growing up in a working-class family, he had reason to be humble. He's a self-described "swamp Yankee" - without a trust fund or an elite college pedigree. He studied engineering at the University of South Carolina on an ROTC scholarship.
He ran for state legislator in Massachusetts at the tender age of 24 - and actually won when he was 26. Since then, he has been devoted to politics, a profession he sees as noble and worthwhile. When working on the New Hampshire primary for the elder Bush, Card saw his wife 13 nights over the course of a year.
Card came to Washington with the first President Bush. As deputy chief of staff, he honed another skill: firing people. In fact, it fell to him to can his own boss, then-chief of staff John Sununu. (It wasn't the first time Card had shown he could use brass knuckles: As a McDonald's manager years before, he pink-slipped an entire crew because someone was pilfering cash.)
Later, Card became Transportation secretary, and then was the auto industry's top lobbyist.
Critics worry that he'll give big business a boost from his powerful post. In fact, environmentalists and some consumer groups see a White House tilting heavily toward corporate interests in its decisions about air quality, oil and gas exploration, and an international treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Card simply says he'll treat businesses evenhandedly - along with all the other interest groups in Washington.
No Tarzan acts
Such dealings in Washington make Card, arguably, the best-prepared chief of staff in modern history. He has worked for seven White House chiefs of staff. He knows how the White House works. He knows how Washington works. He knows the president. And he knows his place.
"It's a spectacular role," he said in a recent speech. "But please don't believe that I'm anything more than a staffer."
This no-chest-pounding attitude allows him to focus on White House management. And Card keeps tight control over who sees the president. He says he distinguishes between those who "need" to see him and those who "want" to.
Card himself is a virtual shadow to Bush. After rising at 5:15 a.m., getting to the office at 6:15, and doing paperwork and running meetings, he walks into the Oval Office at 7:58, just before Bush gets his CIA briefing. Card is usually just a few feet from Bush during public events.
He's even had to wake him up at night, although he allows it wasn't all that late - 10:30 or 11. "Late for George W. Bush isn't late for a lot of other people," he says with a grin. He's clear, though, that Bush is also early to rise - usually getting to the office before 7 a.m.
A major element of Card's day is saying no to lots of people - as in, "no, you can't see the president." It's a part of the job, but it can be a fast way to make enemies: The typical stint for a White House chief of staff is about two years.
Finding the same page
In some respects, the top-level talent the Bush administration has recruited may turn out to pose the biggest management task for Card. Many people selected for Cabinet posts, in particular, are seasoned executives from the realms of business or government, accustomed to making decisions on their own. Already, Secretary of State Colin Powell and EPA chief Christine Whitman have had semipublic disagreements with the White House - Mr. Powell over sanctions against Iraq and Mrs. Whitman over regulating carbon dioxide.
It falls to Card, in large degree, to keep all the heavy hitters on the same page -but without quashing debate or devaluing their input as Bush prepares to make decisions.
Although Card acknowledges that the White House team has an ethic of unanimity, he insists there is lively discussion. "We sat in this room," he says, motioning to the long conference table beside his desk. "We had shouting matches over the budget and how it would be presented."
He ticks off several staffers who are "strong-willed and loud" - Ms. Hughes, communications aide Margaret Tutweiler, and domestic policy chief Margaret LaMontagne. "We're not saying we only want the meek here."
But Card is more serious when addressing questions of potential bickering and individual power centers on the staff. "There's only one power center - and it's in the Oval Office," he says, his voice steely.
He may need such steeliness in the months ahead - for storms that come from within or without. And in the end, it may turn out that Card's days as clockmaster will serve him in good stead.
Longtime Holbrook resident George Porter remembers Card's struggles with the gears and springs when the clock would stop during wind storms. "He'd have to wiggle and waggle and you-know-what to get that thing going again," Mr. Porter says, in a New England accent as thick as clam chowder. "But by God, he'd do it."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor