West Wing Story: D.C. United

In the Bush White House, there is one sure thing that will block your way to a bigger and more powerful job: wanting it.

Or at least acting like you do. That's why when top aide Karen Hughes announced her resignation last week it set in motion an almost comedic routine among likely beneficiaries who denied any interest in carving up her territory.

Chief strategist Karl Rove had the funniest act. Much has been made in Washington of the rivalry between Rove and Hughes. They have at times seemed like high schoolers, both competing for favor with the most popular kid: President Bush. So Rove, in a classic reverse-psychology move, made fun of the speculation that he would benefit most from Hughes's departure. He gets a kick out of his Machiavellian image. Last week, as two of my colleagues from The Washington Post were interviewing Hughes in her office, Rove popped in with a yardstick in hand and started measuring. Of course the photographer captured the moment, and it made the front page of the Post. "Very funny," said Hughes, laughing her big laugh.

Bush surely got a laugh out of it. He likes any humor that pokes fun at one's self. The president also encourages a little discord in the ranks; he wants a variety of opinions. (He just doesn't want anyone outside the White House to know about any disparities.) Hughes and Rove have often obliged. During the anthrax scare, when postal workers fell ill, Rove tried to get Bush to visit them right away. Hughes disagreed: she didn't think the president should start going to every bedside-or funeral. In the end, the White House sent Cabinet Liaison Albert Hawkins to the funeral of two local postal workers.

The two top aides have differed on how to use the bully pulpit for political gain. If Hughes has been too cautious at times, Rove has been too brash. He is still getting heat-as recently as yesterday-for telling Republican loyalists that they should use the war as a campaign weapon.

It's been Communications Director Dan Bartlett who has been the most able mediator between Hughes and Rove. He's worked for Hughes in the White House, but before that he was one of Rove's henchmen during the campaign. "He's Karl's Mini Me," according to one White House insider. The 30-year-old Texan's star has long been ascendant. Observers say he's a better strategist than Hughes but without Rove's hard edges. But in classic Bush style he waves off any speculation that he gains from the loss of Hughes. Last week, The New York Times quoted him saying that he was Bush's longest continuous serving aide. Bartlett was miffed because it made it sound like he was boasting.

The Washington rumor mill has been getting a workout these days. Matt Drudge-still crown prince of rumors-reported that the vice president's top aide, Mary Matalin, would soon follow Hughes out the door. But then there were other rumors that she, too, was getting new drapes made for Hughes's office. She denied them all-a little too vehemently. When reporters would call up with questions even unrelated to the internal intrigue, she gave them an earful about how happy she was in her current job.

And then there was the "spotted having dinner" rumor. Bush I veteran Margaret Tutwiler, who was a key adviser to Hughes in the first 100 days of Bush II, dined with Hughes the week before she announced she was stepping down. Could Tutwiler be coming back from Morocco, where she is ambassador? Or could it simply be that she was in town because the King of Morocco was visiting Bush and, by the way, the Hughes family has been renting her house.

I can't help myself sometimes from engaging in the who's in and who's out game. Last week, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was briefing us on Air Force One when Bush appeared in the cabin ahead of us. I have never seen the president wander back toward the press cabin on Air Force One, so that alone was surprising. But then he summoned Fleischer, who broke off the briefing and walked into a big hug from Bush. My first thought was that this was some kind of public display of support for the at-times besieged press secretary. Turns out it was because Ari had just gotten engaged.

The White House reshuffling will take awhile. Meanwhile, with Hughes heading back to Texas this summer, the Austin-D.C. commute is the new power shuttle. Hughes joins two other key Bush aides splitting their time between the two cities (or is it worlds?). "We've created a virtual Bush operation in Austin," explains Mark McKinnon, Bush's top ad guy during the presidential campaign who now calls himself "just a kibbitzer." Most weeks, he spends two or three days in Washington then, he says, goes home to Austin to "get oxygen in his brain." He's got an office and an apartment blocks from the White House. Along with pollster Matthew Dowd, Hughes now creates an Austin power triumvirate. Hughes's big-picture perspective-her strength-may be enhanced from her new office 30,000 feet up.