When a White House Shakeup Isn't Really a Shakeup

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MARTIN SIMON / EPA

Chief of Staff Andrew Card announces his resignation. Budget Director Josh Bolten, left, will take his place

After making a four-minute statement in the Rose Garden this morning, President Bush wended his way through the Cabinet members arrayed behind him as a television correspondent bellowed, with various others joining in: "Mr. President, did you feel pressure to make staff changes?" The President was grinning noticeably as he ducked back into the Oval Office, as if to say: Let ‘em holler! The replacement of Bush’s first chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., with budget director Joshua B. Bolten may foster a badly needed sense of renewal and produce headlines about a shakeup. But this is the comfort food of staff changes — the replacement of a longtime family loyalist with someone who has been one of this President’s insiders since the Austin days.

Card, known around the West Wing as "Secretary Card" for his service as Transportation Secretary to President George H.W. Bush, served for nearly triple the average tenure of a White House chief of staff. He is spoken of worshipfully by his underlings, and is one of the few White House officials that other aides will tell you they love. But in the lobbyist/strategist/pollster coterie, he was getting the bulk of the blame for the White House’s recent self-inflicted wounds.

"No one wants to leave a White House, particularly this White House — it’s hard leaving the family," said one of the few people privy to what really happened. "Andy was just wise enough to push the President to say, ‘This is a good time to change.'" A wily veteran of Massachusetts politics, Card has been predicting his own departure since Nov. 1, 2001, when he told a Boston audience, "The half-life for a chief of staff is two years... There are very few people who had the experience I am having that survived very long, and that is appropriate. There is no security. I will not vest in the pension system at the White House."

Bush says he and Card had been talking about the transition for three weeks, but the 8:30 a.m. announcement was a surprise to almost everyone in Washington. "On most days," Bush said with Card, 58, at his right hand and Bolten, 51, at his left, "Andy is the first one to arrive in the West Wing and among the last to leave. And during those long days over many years I've come to know Andy as more than my Chief of Staff. He is leaving the White House, but he will always be my friend. Laura and I have known Andy and his wife, Kathi, for more than 20 years, and our close friendship will continue."

The change, effective on April 15, followed a waterfall of leaks from advisers close to the White House that Bush was finally considering changes at the top after resisting them ever since struggling with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in September. The outcome showed the strength of Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who along with Vice President Cheney is the last standing of the Oval Office inner circle.

Anticipating coverage of whether Card was forced out, the Republican National Committee said, in talking points distributed this morning to frequent talk show guests who are supportive of the administration, "He was not fired." The talking point, provided to TIME by a recipient, went on: "Does the President think that Andy Card is to blame for the difficulties he has faced this year, especially the poor response during Katrina, Harriet Miers, and the recent Dubai parts fiasco?" In short, the answer was no. "Andy Card has been a terrific Chief of Staff, and he has led the White House team through many very difficult challenges for more than five and a half years," the document says. "He did it with great skill and decency, and he will leave with the President’s and the country’s gratitude. "

Bolten, who brings a sly and dry humor to a back-breaking job (and start counting the number of times you read he’s a Harley-riding bachelor), is a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who was policy director of Bush’s 2000 campaign and was his first deputy chief of staff for policy. So he is steeped in the current system. As a further sign of stability amidst change, White House insiders predicted that Bolten’s successor will be his deputy, Joel Kaplan — a veteran of both the Marine Corps and Bolten’s policy shops in Austin and the West Wing. Officials said Bolten will look at the White House from top to bottom and may make changes of his own, but a radical realignment would shock people quite close to Bush.

Speaking to the Federalist Society in 2003, Card described how Bush starts each weekday when he’s in town. "The President shows up in the Oval Office between quarter of seven and seven o’clock in the morning, and I’m there to greet him," Card said. "One of the greatest privileges that anyone can have in any democracy is to say, 'Good morning, Mr. President.'" He told other audiences that someone had to be sure the President got a haircut regularly, and that someone was him. Bolten may delegate the haircut scheduling. But the President can be confident that his agenda and the White House will continue being steered by a like-minded confidant who was present at the creation.