Behind the White House Reshuffling

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WIN MCNAMEE / GETTY IMAGES

Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove with President Bush and Press Secretary Scott McClellan at the White House this morning. McClellan announced his resignation today, and Rove's duties at the White House have also been trimmed.

The sudden announcement by Scott McClellan that he is resigning as White House Press Secretary reflected the conclusion by President Bush’s inner circle that visible, dramatic change — something this President has long resisted — is crucial to relaunching the second term and making productive use of his last two and a half years in office.

McClellan’s predecessor, Ari Fleischer, told TIME the departure was a selfless recognition by McClellan of the importance of change. "The American people are going to give the President a second look here in his sixth year because he’s engineering these changes," Fleischer said. "That’s helpful. He needs the country to give him a second look."

Other changes are likely to be announced soon, including a replacement for Treasury Secretary John Snow. Joshua B. Bolten, who took over last Friday afternoon as Bush’s second chief of staff, also plans to strengthen the Cabinet liaison and legislative affairs shops. Bush plans to promote Ruben Barrales, the Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

McClellan, who began working for Bush in the Texas Governor’s office in 1999, was one of the few people left in the West Wing known as "family" — put in his job because he was beloved by the President and because longtime confidant Karen Hughes wanted him there. Like Bolten’s predecessor, Andrew H. Card Jr., McClellan did not want to go. Although he had talked to colleagues sporadically about departing as long as a year ago, he had planned to stay until after the midterm election. Friends said he had gotten the internal signal and wanted to get it over with, to short-circuit the craziness of having to refuse to speculate about himself from the podium.

In a second announcement that hit like an earthquake internally, the White House said that wunderkind Joel Kaplan will be Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, taking over some day-to-day non-political turf that once had been the province of his now-fellow Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, who retains the title of senior adviser. The plan is for Kaplan to coordinate and manage the policy process, while Bush has charged Rove with focusing on big thinking about big issues, both strategic and tactical.

The Democratic National Committee trumpeted that as a "demotion" of Rove. But people close to the President said focusing on the fine points of policy was not a good use of Rove’s mind, time or expertise. "Karl could be called the janitor and his role with the President would not change," said a Bush friend. Bolten allies said he wants clear lines of authority and accountability, and said the announcement showed his assertiveness, since Card had deferred to Rove on many matters that are traditionally the purview of the Chief of Staff.

McClellan said he will stay on "as we transition to a new Press Secretary over the next two to three weeks." A person who has been consulted about McClellan’s successor said Bush’s inner circle realizes that they need someone who is more than a mouthpiece and has credibility with the press. So in addition to traditional Republican communicators, Bush’s searchers are considering at least one member of the press — Tony Snow of Fox News Radio and former host of "Fox News Sunday." Snow is an informal finalist, according to these people. Bush insiders say to watch Victoria Clarke, formerly Bush’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. During the administration of President George H.W. Bush, she worked with Bolten in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. She was press secretary to President George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign, and earlier had been press secretary to Congressman and then Senator John McCain. But Clarke answered the question for herself today when she was on CNN: "Not happening. It's not under consideration. They're not going to ask. And I'm not going to do it."

Unlike Card, McClellan gets little internal blame for the rough seas of the second term. McClellan kept his cherubic grin and low-key sense of Southern humor even when he was being rhetorically pummeled by testosterone-fueled correspondents. When McClellan’s Texas Longhorns were appearing with Bush to celebrate their Rose Bowl win at the height of the imbroglio over Vice President Cheney’s marksmanship, McClellan joked, "The orange that they're wearing is not because they're concerned that the Vice President may be there. Although that's why I'm wearing it."

With no announcement, McClellan appeared in the driveway of the South Lawn at 9:39 a.m. with the President as he prepared to board his Marine One chopper for Andrews Air Force Base and thence to a day trip in Tuskegee, Ala. McClellan smiled, but quickly got a catch in his voice. "Good morning, everybody. I am here to announce that I will be resigning as White House Press Secretary," he said. "The White House is going through a period of transition; change can be helpful, and this is a good time and good position to help bring about change."

The most telling word in Bush’s comments was "integrity," making it clear that he does not blame McClellan — and McClellan should not be blamed — for passing on incomplete or inaccurate information he had been given. "I thought he handled his assignment with class, integrity," Bush said. "He really represents the best of his family, our state and our country. It's going to be hard to replace Scott. But, nevertheless, he's made the decision and I accept it." He then added an unusually intimate note: "One of these days he and I are going to be rocking on chairs in Texas, talking about the good old days and his time as the Press Secretary. And I can assure you I will feel the same way then that I feel now, that I can say to Scott, job well done."

McClellan agonized visibly when it turned out that he had repeated from the podium incomplete information he had been given about the role of White House aides in leaking the name of former CIA officer Valerie Plame. "This relationship is built on trust," he told reporters last fall, "and you know very well that I have worked hard to earn the trust of the people in this room, and I think I've earned it, and I think I've earned it with the American people." A week later, McClellan said slyly, "I enjoy working with the people in this room most of the time."

People who have been consulted about the makeover said Bolten’s operating premise is that the White House needs to communicate better but also needs something better to communicate, so he plans to add elements to the President’s agenda that will give him new opportunities for accomplishments and give Republicans on Capitol Hill a new reason to unify with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Within days of the announcement on March 28 that Bolten would be taking over April 15, people close to the President reported that they had been consulted about a successor to McClellan. Other oft-mentioned possible replacements for McClellan are Dan Senor, former chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority and senior adviser to L. Paul Bremer III, who was the senior civilian administrator in Iraq; Trent Duffy, formerly McClellan’s deputy and now a consultant and television analyst; and Robert S. Nichols, formerly Bush’s Assistant Treasury Secretary for Public Affairs and now president and chief operating officer of the Financial Services Forum.

Kaplan, the new third Deputy Chief of Staff, was Bolten’s deputy in the policy shop in Austin during the President’s first national campaign, worked in the Chief of Staff’s office when Bolten was one of the two deputies in the first term, and was most recently his deputy at the Office of Management and Budget. Kaplan, who has two Harvard degrees, was an artillery officer in the Marine Corps and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, was scheduled to return today from his honeymoon. Another honeymoon is probably something the President would like as well.