Dan Bartlett

On life in the White House.

January 2008By Comments

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—

ES: Katrina.

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, both Republican and Democrat, and in some cases it was helpful. In other cases, you’re right—there was no playbook. Something I found in having to deal mostly with communications was that it was utterly useless to look back to the Clinton administration, because of the transformation of media and the 24-hour news cycle. As a Republican, the first place you go to look to see how to do it is the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, and [his media guru] Mike Deaver. But they only had to worry about a sound bite on the evening news, when 70 percent of the public was tuning in to the three network broadcasts. In 2001 only 40 percent of the American people were tuning in to the networks. The fundamental change in the way people consume the news had to change the way we executed a communications strategy at the White House.

ES: How much attention did you pay to the programs on cable?

DB: I never worried about a certain cable show. What I was looking for were trends that were shaping the narrative and the conventional wisdom and whether we had to be in front of or behind those things.

ES: What about the blogs?

DB: We had to set up a whole new apparatus to deal with the challenges they pose. Are they real journalists? The Washington Post, for example, has journalists who are now bloggers. Do you treat them as bloggers? Do they get credentials?

ES: Let’s think of it as a practical matter. If one of those journalists-turned-bloggers, Chris Cillizza, e-mails you to say he needs an interview, and at the same time one of the Post’s print reporters—say, Dan Balz—e-mails you and says he needs an interview, and you can do only one . . .

DB: Balz.

ES: Because the print edition of the Post has more of an impact?

DB: Because Balz is on multiple platforms. He’s booked more easily on television. He’s read by more people. He influences people a bit more. Now, the question might not be as much Chris versus Dan as maybe, “Is it Dan Balz or one of the guys at [the conservative blog] Power Line?”

ES: Yeah, or what if [conservative blogger] Hugh Hewitt called?

DB: That’s when you start going, “Hmm . . .” Because they do reach people who are influential.

ES: Well, they reach the president’s base.

DB: That’s what I mean by influential. I mean, talk about a direct IV into the vein of your support. It’s a very efficient way to communicate. They regurgitate exactly and put up on their blogs what you said to them. It is something that we’ve cultivated and have really tried to put quite a bit of focus on.

ES: Dispel the myth that there’s an underground tunnel between the Fox News studios and the White House.

DB: Um, no, quite the contrary. I’ll tell you, I probably got more complaints from various Fox News programs about not getting the type of access they deserved. Now, there are exceptions to that. Vice President Cheney’s done a lot with them. But I think they were treated pretty equally across the board. If you look at the major newscasters, there were some, like [Dan] Rather, that we didn’t do. You’d be hard-pressed to say that we didn’t accommodate the others.

ES: You acknowledge that the perception is out there that the playing field was tilted a little bit in their direction.

DB: There’s no question that’s the perception. In reality, I don’t think there’s as much behind it.

ES: What do you think we in the media haven’t understood about this president?

DB: I can’t tell you how many times reporters who didn’t really know the president came in and had a personal session with him and said, “Wow, he’s smarter than I thought.” The temptation to buy into the conventional wisdom left the wrong impression about who this guy is personally.

ES: Have the media been too tough on him?

DB: I think White House correspondents have been tagged, unfairly, with not being tough enough on the administration and President Bush in the run-up to the war. If you go back and look, they asked all the right questions. The problem is, they’re acting now like they have to be five times more critical, and I think they’ve gone overboard.

ES: You think they’re overcompensating.

DB: Yes, I do. This issue of “Bush lied, people died”? It’s been the mantra for the last four years: “If only the right questions had been asked back then, we would have found out that he was lying to us.” That’s false—it’s patently false. There’s a difference between lying and being wrong. We were wrong. As were a lot of people and a lot of countries. We were wrong about the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. That’s far different from saying that we purposely manipulated or intentionally lied to the American people.

ES: Do you think the press corps is responsible for putting that word out—that the president was lying?

DB: I don’t think they’re purposely doing it. Look, I get asked the question all the time: How do you deal with them when they’re all liberal? I’ve found that most of them are not ideologically driven. Do I think that a lot of them don’t agree with the president? No doubt about it. But impact, above all else, is what matters. All they’re worried about is, can I have the front-page byline? Can I lead the evening newscast? And unfortunately, that requires them to not do in-depth studies about President Bush’s health care plan or No Child Left Behind. It’s who’s up, who’s down: Cheney hates Condi, Condi hates Cheney.

ES: So now we know what the media have done wrong. What did you do wrong? What would you like to have back?

DB: You don’t get do-overs—that’s the thing about working there. We found that if you became too worried about the decision you had just made, you were not going to be in a very good position to make the next one. They’re big decisions and they’re hard decisions, and there’s a lot of perfect hindsight now about things we would have done differently, for example, had we known the [problems with the] intelligence on the war. There are comments the president made that he would love to take back. “Bring ’em on” is one that he regrets.

ES: He regrets or you regret?

DB: He does and I do. Me personally, [I regret] the “Mission Accomplished” banner. I wish I could have back the decision to sign off on that. I think the intent behind it to this day holds true. “Mission Accomplished” was the motto of the aircraft carrier that had just spent ten months in a war zone both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we wanted to celebrate what they had done. But it left a wrong impression symbolically with the American people that our work was done in Iraq, and obviously that wasn’t the case.

ES: With regard to the president’s legacy and how historians will treat him, is everything riding on the outcome in Iraq?

DB: No question. I think the separating of Iraq from other issues in the war on terror will be less obvious twenty or thirty years from now. I think they’ll be judged collectively. My sense is that things will steadily improve in Iraq, and I think the perception of the president will change with it.

ES: You still find cause to be optimistic about the war?

DB: I do. I’ve sat in hundreds of briefings. I think the team advising this president and executing this strategy on the ground should give us hope. I also understand probably better than most how threats emanate from the Middle East, and I fundamentally believe that if our country ever changes its posture into more of a defensive posture instead of more of an offensive posture, it’s going to threaten the security of our country.

ES: If you’re optimistic for what you believe are good reasons—if the information flow inside the White House is cause for optimism—why shouldn’t this be seen as a colossal failure of communications on the part of the administration? Why haven’t you been able to message that good news successfully?

DB: Whether you’re communicating properly is a result of how good your facts are. Up until recently, there haven’t been good facts. There’s also considerable fatigue. It’s my view that ever since it was official that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we were largely on borrowed time with the American people. There have been too many Charlie Brown moments where we felt like, okay, there’s some positive optimism, and then it was rescinded. I think now more than ever we have the right strategy to have sustainable progress, but the time and sacrifice have been more than we anticipated. That doesn’t make it any less necessary, but it does make it harder for the American people to tolerate it.

ES: Who is the Republican presidential nominee going to be?

DB: I don’t know. I really don’t. I could make a case for three of them.

ES: It’s John McCain you can’t make a case for.

DB: I’d have a difficult time. Because of resources, I think, he could win New Hampshire and lose the presidential nomination, just like he did in 2000.

ES: Is Hillary Clinton going to win?

DB: I don’t think so. There’s a long road ahead of us. Someone who enters into a general election with a high negative approval rating has a built-in disadvantage.

ES: Regardless of the Democratic nominee, the Republican brand is tarnished right now.

DB: I feel very bullish about the fact that a Republican can win the fall election. The interesting thing is, as much as Iraq has been dominant throughout the politics of ’04, ’06, and now ’08, you’ll have tens of thousands of troops coming home next year, and so Iraq is not going to be the front-burner issue in the way that everybody initially predicted. We were down eight to ten points to Al Gore. We were down eight to ten points to John Kerry. I can see why conventional wisdom says Republicans ought to be despondent, but I don’t feel that way.

ES: Is there another Democrat who worries you more than Hillary does? What if, say, Barack Obama were the nominee?

DB: He poses a different set of challenges. When it comes down to it, Hillary Clinton will very much excite the Republican faithful to get out and work hard. I don’t know if a similar case can be made if Obama is the candidate.

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