Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Harsh Reality Of What They've Done To America, And The World, Begins To Sink In For Ex-Bush Staffers

By Darryl Mason

The White House is under siege. President Bush has bottomed out to some of the lowest poll numbers in the history of the United States; Congress is bitter and hostile; the War On Iraq is a brutal, death-soaked tragedy; the 'War on Terror' looms ahead, unresolved and ill-defined for decades to come; the Bush domestic agenda is a wasteland of missed opportunities and busted dreams and the Bush legacy is set to go down as one of the darkest and most miserable periods of modern American history.

It's little wonder, then, that key Bush staffers are bailing on their embattled boss in a rising tide of departures, some long expected, others out of the blue, sudden and flailing.

Some have fled barely able to function, while others have decided any life outside of the White House is better than life inside the White House.

Literally dozens of key Bush staffers and advisers have quit the Bush administration in the past year. Many, like Karl Rove, have been working for George W. Bush for more than a decade. Some have never known a working life where Bush was not their chief priority.

You read through this story from the Washington Post, you take in the very obvious first signs of looming bouts of crippling depression that some ex-staffers will face, and you wonder : who will be the first ex-Busher to take their own life?

....the cumulative exodus of so many key people at once has transformed the White House as it heads into the dwindling months of the Bush presidency. Rove and Bartlett are gone, and so are their fellow Texans, Harriet E. Miers and Alberto R. Gonzales. Tony Snow, Sara M. Taylor, Rob Portman, J.D. Crouch, Peter D. Feaver, J. Scott Jennings and a host of others have left.

There is so much turnover that on one recent Friday there were four farewell parties or last-day exits. Bush poses for so many Oval Office photos with departing aides it feels like an assembly line.

The long-term ideals that many of them came to the White House to pursue appear jeopardized, even discredited to many. They tell themselves that they have acted on principle, that the decisions they helped make will be vindicated. But they cannot be sure.

"There's this overriding awareness that we're living and acting for the judgment of history," said William Inboden, who resigned last month as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council.

And as history judges, Iraq is always there. "It constantly looms," he said. "It is the inescapable presence, the inescapable reality. You see it in all these ways. People. Time. Money. Diplomatic and political capital. It sort of becomes the reality you live with and obviously we have to be able to."

...some have grown embittered at what has become of the presidency they helped build. A key Bush reelection strategist has disavowed him, his former U.N. ambassador has become a vocal critic of key policies, his former defense secretary says he does not miss him, his former speechwriter wrote a harsh takedown of another top aide.

One former senior official said nearly everyone who has left the administration is angry in some way or another -- at the president for making bad decisions, at his staff for misguiding him, at events that have spiraled out of control.

Karl Rove doesn't sound much like the cocky, boastful and arrogant figure who once bobbed at Bush's side like the Abbott to the the president's Costello.

"I understand there are people out there who really don't like me. And the question is, am I going to let it bother me? I ignore the ugly things that are said." Still, the notoriety comes with an edge. "I'm more conscious of my surroundings when I'm in public places."

"I told the boss, 'I feel like I'm deserting you in a time of war,' " he said. "...I don't feel sorry for myself."

This was a recurring theme in the course of an hour-long conversation. He is not depressed, he said more than once. "Hey, man, that was my life," he said. "It's not my life now. One of the reasons I don't think I'm depressed is I'm always looking forward."

Rove is not one for dwelling on decisions made or sharing blame for what went wrong. He has harsh words for Democrats who, he said, never accepted Bush as president. But he said he understands the price of the war. "It weighs on you a lot, and if you're not aware of it at the time, you're insane," he said. "People die. People from the same small town in Nevada where I grew up. . . . Is there second-guessing in terms of people hand-wringing? 'Oh my God, if we'd only done it this way'? No. But is there discussion of did this work out the way we expected and if not, why? Yes."

Dan Bartlett speaks in similar terms. As Bush's counselor, Bartlett and Rove often quarreled in the White House. By the end, colleagues said, they barely spoke except in formal meetings. Rove usually favored an in-your-face political strategy, while Bartlett advocated a less aggressive approach. And friends said Bartlett felt that Rove still saw him as the young kid who came to work for him 15 years ago.

Neither wants to talk about that now, and they spoke with each other by telephone recently. Bartlett shares Rove's aversion to revisiting the past. Asked about regrets, Bartlett said, "I can think of a banner on a certain ship," a reference to the infamous "Mission Accomplished" sign behind Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.

Most of those who have left in recent months are hitting the speaking circuit, considering book contracts or joining consulting firms.

Rove, like many other ex-Bushers, is now trying to distance himself from the president, and the looming shadow of the godawful presidential legacy. He's not 'Bush's Brain' anymore. Karl Rove wants it to be known he is his own man.

"It's not like my life from here forward is going to be defined by it," he said. "I have a chance to create something else. I'm not just going to be typecast as, 'Oh, that's the Bush guy.'"

He'll be lucky if he's remembered even that 'fondly'. Rove's name will be poison for decades to come for tens of millions of Americans, who will see in him all the failures, horror and bloodshed of the George W. Bush presidency, and will wonder how what they're country might have become in war-heavy first decade of the 21st century if they had never come to know the names of Karl Rove and President George W. Bush.