Evan Smith: You leave the Bush White House and you come back to Austin? You couldn’t find someplace a little more different?
Dan Bartlett: After being in Austin for a few days, it quickly reminded [my wife and me] of everything we loved about the city. I will say, though, that my experience personally in Washington was better than I anticipated.
ES: How’s that?
DB: We were able to carve out a private life there and develop strong friendships in a climate for raising children that I thought didn’t exist. We gravitated toward people who were generally from the South—some Texans, some from Louisiana, others from Arkansas—and the Midwest. People who were like-minded, raised similarly, and were in Washington for the same reason we were. We were all somewhat involved in politics but had a lot better time talking about hunting or the football game that weekend. I was a bit surprised that we were able to do that. But at the end of the day, in the broad scope of things, it was an easy decision to return home.
ES: How hard was it to leave professionally? Someone who’s been in your position presumably has many opportunities there.
DB: The immediate detox was difficult. When you’ve been operating at that speed for so long, going from 100 miles per hour to nothing is a bit of a transition. The first Sunday I was off—this was after the Fourth of July—I had my wife send me a test e-mail because I didn’t think my e-mail was working. I hadn’t received an e-mail when I’d have typically had about a hundred. But I’m not regretting it, and I’m not missing it, which tells me, first, that I left it all on the playing field. I don’t feel like there was anything that I didn’t accomplish. And second, there’s a reason why most West Wing staffers only last about two and a half years.
ES: They run you through the mill pretty quickly, don’t they?
DB: It’s a grind. I’ve been blessed in my experience in government, because a lot of people chip away for many, many years before they get that shot. Look at James Carville, who went through a lot of failed campaigns. You can say that Karl [Rove] went through a lot of campaigns. I had a unique circumstance in which my career was associated with George W. Bush, who went straight to the top. I went to work for him in October of 1993. So my whole identity in national politics is associated with this president, and you know, I kind of want to leave it that way. It’s not tugging at me to go do the ’08 cycle.
ES: Surely you’ve had calls.
DB: I did get some calls. But I know most of the people in those campaigns, and they know my situation.
ES: It’s unlikely that you’d come back.
DB: Unless I wanted to be single. I mean, my wife … It would be over.
ES: The perception that the vast majority of the country has about working in the West Wing is The West Wing. Everybody thinks it’s real.
DB: They did a pretty good job of demonstrating the variedness of the issues. They dramatized the decision-making a bit, as you would need to for television.
ES: Not everything is so exciting.
DB: Or comes down to a final, impassioned speech by the president. It’s a lot more mundane. As for the pace, nobody runs around the West Wing like they did on the program, but I must say that they captured the intensity.
ES: What kind of hours did you work?
DB: I would get into the office by 6:30, and my goal was to leave before 8. I typically got out anywhere between 7:45 and 8:30. That gave me enough time to do three phone calls on the way home, get situated there, and do a bunch of e-mails, but then, you know, it doesn’t stop. That’s the thing about technology. It’s probably this way with a lot of professionals: At first the BlackBerry is a savior, because it makes you mobile, but then it becomes a curse, because you’re at a restaurant and looking down at it under the table.
ES: Been there.
DB: My wife always said this was a lifestyle, not a job. It was 24/7. One of the moments it hit me was in the summer of ’06. We took a week off with three or four other families to go down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and we got a beach house. I was the only one who brought two military technicians, to set up secure videoconferencing.
ES: Just a normal vacation.
DB: At one point [my friends] looked at me and said, “You know, Bartlett, when are you going to give this up?” There’s no such thing as a real vacation, and there’s no such thing as turning it off on a Saturday evening. I can recall being at a friend’s house when [William] Rehnquist died—we were watching a Longhorn football game. I’d had a couple of beers, and all of a sudden I’m going to be up half the night dealing with the death of a Supreme Court justice.
ES: The news doesn’t take the weekend off. Come to think of it, since 9/11, there really hasn’t been any letup.
DB: Half of the things that happened to us never happened to any other administration. In eight years, President Clinton had the Oklahoma City bombing and a few other relatively important historical moments, but we had 9/11, a shuttle disaster over the state of Texas, anthrax attacks here in the United States, military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq—
DB: Katrina. It’s enough to make your hair turn gray.
ES: Without a precedent for dealing with so much of this, what do you do?
DB: We look to the past to find the answers to the future. We studied previous presidents,