That scampering sound you hear is the feet of senior White House officials running for the exits. The summer has left President Bush without three of his closest Texas aides: counselor Dan Bartlett, political guru Karl Rove and longtime lawyer Alberto Gonzales. Now Bush is losing one of the few outsiders who helped improve (a little) the atmosphere of his second term: press secretary Tony Snow.
Snow had the good fortune to succeed the personable but hapless Scott McClellan, who presided over a restless briefing room with little confidence and even less information. Snow used his talent as a former talk-show host to inject more life into the briefings while offering even less news and insight than McClellan.
Few West Wing staffers considered Snow to be close to the president or a decision maker on strategy and policy. Yet he was widely admired for his strength and spirit, as he endured his second fight with cancer—a battle that has taken an obvious and rapid toll on his body.
Rove's departure will have a far bigger impact on the West Wing, starting next week—the first Rove-free day in the building since Bush arrived in January 2001. When it was first announced earlier this month, the exit of Bush's architect was explained as the result of his desire to spend more time with his family.
In fact, some of Rove's friends suggest that there are other factors at play, along with his genuine commitment to his family. After the end of the CIA leak investigation, Rove wanted to return to his former White House role and stay at the president's side until January 2009, according to one source close to Rove, who declined to be named discussing the influential adviser's plans. Instead, the loss of Congress last year and the determined attack by Democrats left him no room to maneuver. His decision to leave was shaped far more by Democratic pressure than Rove or Bush would ever acknowledge in public.
"After the '06 elections there wasn't any breathing space afforded to him," said one close confidant, a former White House official. "He was going to be under the gun all the time. Maybe he felt it was going to loosen up a bit, but that wasn't the case." There is no indication that the timing of his departure, or Snow's, was influenced by the September showdown over Iraq—though that doesn't mean Democrats won't fuel such speculation.
Both Rove and Bartlett were close enough to the president to speak directly to the boss, and they played a major role in negotiating their own departures. But White House chief of staff Josh Bolten has been the major force shaping the timing of other exits at the White House and within the Bush cabinet. Bolten is well-liked inside the White House, but few staffers have any doubts about his ability to set aside personal friendships to make cold calculations about the president's interests and decide when to make a change. "It's his responsibility to tee up the issues so that the president and the principals involved appreciate all the challenges," said one former administration official. "And he has done that. He's definitely somebody who is focused on putting together the best environment in the last 15 months to get as much done as possible."