WASHINGTON — When George W. Bush picks up the paper in the morning, the first section he pulls out is sports. Ask him about a front-page news story, and he might respond that he scanned it.
Well, it's a relief to know that the president is still just a regular guy, despite five months inside the hermetically sealed White House bubble.
But "regular guy" is not the image the White House needs to brush up, either at home or as Mr. Bush takes his first trip to a skeptical Europe. And Chief of Staff Andrew Card knows that.
The sports-page anecdote notwithstanding, Mr. Card spent most of a recent lunch hour with Washington journalists trying mightily to blot out the image of an intellectually challenged, figurehead president.
Take the question on the tip of not a few Americans' tongues: Who, really, is in charge at the White House? Card, who worked for a veritable parade of chiefs of staff in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, set the framework for his answer with this story:
Back in 1983, Card went to work for Ronald Reagan - or so he thought. But at his first meeting in the hallowed Roosevelt Room - ready to talk about acid rain - he suddenly got a different impression.
Nervous, he had arrived early, just as name placards were being placed around the conference table. Card introduced himself to the woman with the name cards.
"Are you Baker or Meese?" she asked, referring to James Baker and Ed Meese, two in President Reagan's powerful - and divisive - troika of senior advisers.
"I'm Andy Card," he replied.
"Well, are you Baker or Meese?" came the question again.
"I don't know."
She extracted from him the department he worked in and put his placard on what appeared to be the Baker side of the table.
"That was the first time it hit me," says Card, "that the leadership of the White House ... gives a personality to the bureaucracy, and it was very clear that there was a Meese camp, a Baker camp, and a [Michael] Deaver camp." Mr. Deaver was Reagan's deputy chief of staff.
Of course, Card's implication is that there's one camp in this White House - the Bush one.
The White House reflects the occupant of the Oval Office, insists Card, and that's seen in everything from a schedule that fits Bush's early-to-bed, early-to-rise, in-the-office-by-7 a.m. style, to his open-door policy, to the preservation of his Texas team of advisers. What it does not reflect is the corner office of the chief of staff down the hall.
"My job is to be a staffer," Card says. "I work very hard to have the president's confidence, but not be his friend."
Card, however, doesn't mention the troika of this administration: himself and advisers Karl Rove and Karen Hughes. Nor does he bring up differences between the Texas contingent (of which Card is not a part) and the experienced Washington hands (which he is). No, he has already moved on, beating back another irksome Bush stereotype - that intellectual depth is not exactly the president's strength.
"He's smarter than you think he is," Card tells the reporters, who chew on the relativity of that statement over plates of baby asparagus and stuffed, rolled chicken. "He does his homework more than you give him credit for doing, and he enjoys challenging the staff and those around him who counsel him," says Card, who chose not to eat at all.
"Homework"? By this, Card means briefing books and papers, which Bush takes home at day's end. In the morning, he's "ready to argue" policy with his aides, Card says. Lately, he adds, Bush has spent "a lot of time" studying the issue of fetal-tissue research, which "strains all pre-existing discussions of ethics." He is expected to decide this month or next whether the US will fund stem-cell research.
Views differ within the administration on this issue, and Card uses that to point out that the president gets more than one set of opinions on any given topic. Cabinet secretaries bring their differences to the Oval Office, he says, and Bush often reaches beyond his advisers to seek advice from outsiders. On the stem-cell issue, Bush has consulted ethicists, scientists, and doctors.
Card also said one of his jobs is to "market and sell" the president's decisions "at the right time and to the right audiences." He meant policy decisions - but he's clearly busy with another sales pitch. Card is doing his best to convince the public - especially the media - that concerns about presidential smarts and control are nothing more than bugaboos.
Time will tell whether the skeptics buy.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor