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Texans on the wane in West Wing

Dan Bartlett is exiting, so Karl Rove is the last Lone Star confidant.

June 02, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As George W. Bush underwent a seven-year metamorphosis from gubernatorial candidate to president, and then through the six years, four months and 12 days of his White House tenure so far, Dan Bartlett was always at his side.

On Friday, Bartlett announced that he was heading out the door.

His departure leaves only political advisor Karl Rove among the Texans who arrived in Washington with Bush and worked closely with him in the White House West Wing. Bartlett's decision to leave underscores the growing challenge the president will face in the last 1 1/2 years of his administration.

Bartlett's title is counselor to the president. His role and responsibilities have ranged across White House operations. He's had a hand in developing policy, analyzing the political implications of various decisions, and directing how such decisions would be conveyed to the public.

"His contribution has been immeasurable," Bush said in a statement. "I value his judgment and I treasure his friendship."

Bartlett, 36, has three sons -- twins who are close to 4 years old, and a 4 1/2 -month-old. On Friday, he said he had decided it was time to stop heading for the office at 6 a.m. and returning home at least 14 hours later.

On a vacation last summer, he said, White House technicians trailed him "to set up a secure video conference" so he could continue working.

"I've had competing families," Bartlett told reporters. "And unfortunately, the Bush family has prevailed too many times, and it's high time for the Bartlett family to finally prevail."

He said he planned to leave by July 4.

There has been a steady turnover within the White House in recent months, and Bartlett predicted that others would make similar moves "over the course of the summer."

The pattern is typical for two-term administrations in modern times. Many who have invested years working for a president look to move into more lucrative, and less time-consuming, private-sector jobs before their cachet as Washington insiders evaporates.

That means Bush has had to replace trusted aides as he wrestles with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a litany of disputes with the Democratic-controlled Congress, and the growing shadow of the campaigns to replace him.

This week, he responded with a flurry of efforts to shape the policy debate. These included promoting initiatives or funding plans to combat global warming, AIDS and the violence in Darfur, as well as intensifying his push for an overhaul of immigration law.

Bartlett's departure will leave an especially large hole.

The onetime head of his high school's Future Farmers of America chapter, Bartlett was a University of Texas student in 1993 when Rove brought him into the early stages of Bush's initial run for governor.

The young man and the candidate -- with an age difference of almost 25 years -- formed a bond. As the president recounted in his autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," he called on Bartlett to quickly defuse a potential political problem when, during an East Texas dove-hunting expedition in the midst of the gubernatorial campaign, Bush accidentally shot an endangered species of bird.

Bush had Bartlett report the incident to authorities and pay the fine, giving the young campaign worker an early lesson in crisis control.

Years later, from his office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bartlett wrestled with the fallout from the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Those who have worked with him in the West Wing said that Bartlett, especially in recent years, served as something of a counterweight to Rove, often providing alternative views from those of the architect of Bush's political career.

"Dan stepped into that role," said Karen P. Hughes, another Texan who came with Bush, serving as his first White House counselor. She also acted as a balance to Rove.

Bartlett also has had closer personal ties to Bush: The president usually turned to him when he wanted to talk Texas sports.

The comfort they have with each other and their age difference led some insiders to speculate that Bush -- the father of twin girls -- saw Bartlett as a surrogate son.

Others, though, cautioned against going that far.

Bartlett "has a wonderful relationship with George W. Bush, but it's the relationship of a very valued aide, confidant, advisor and spokesman," said Ari Fleischer, a former Bush White House press secretary. "I never saw it go to that deeper emotional level."

Fleischer added, "The best thing about Dan is that he has the president's 100% confidence, and he can tell the president to go jump off a dock; he can tell the president that [Rove] is wrong."

Bartlett, for his part, summed up his career with Bush by saying, "It's been a great ride."

Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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