Josh Bolten, chief of staff to President Bush, spoke at my IFE/INFO forum last Thursday, at The White House. He reflected on his eight years of service to this Bush administration. He impressed everyone with his graciousness, humor and savvy. With his high-level experience in the financial sector and the government, Josh uniquely understands how Washington operates — his insight allowed President Bush to make policy with a clear sense of the big picture.
As chief of staff for Bush 43, he has confronted criticism ever since he landed the job. Last Wednesday, for example, Republicans blasted him for defending the president’s auto bailout plan. It’s not his fault, though, that the auto industry crashed this year — the reality is that American carmakers have been in decline ever since the Japanese introduced more competitive models in the 1980s, and their incompetence finally caught up with them.
Josh has served a president with some of the lowest approval ratings in history, and has shown resolve at a time when our economy’s in the worst shape that it’s been in since the 1930s. Suffice it to say that he’s hardly been in an enviable position. Even so, the chief has said that it’s his goal to make the transition from Bush 43 to Obama 44 the “smoothest in history.” Based on what he told us at the IFE/INFO session, it may indeed go down as the smoothest transition in history. The Bush team is making highly detailed records available to the Obama team — records that chronicle not just its accomplishments and setbacks, but also the mechanisms for making policy on a bipartisan basis. He told us that, incredibly, there’s not a single manual that discusses transition dynamics — with all his knowledge, Josh could probably write an authoritative tome himself. With Iraq just beginning to stabilize, Afghanistan still in chaos, and a global economy in ruins, America would be in even greater danger were it not for Josh’s wisdom and leadership. Historians will sing his praises years from now when they realize what an exemplary transition he ran.
Josh hosted a breakfast for the incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, at which 13 other former chiefs of staff showed up. They all gave Rahm advice, and Josh said that he was taking notes to ensure that he soaked it all up. When one former chief of staff asked Vice President Cheney to give Mr. Emanuel some advice, he joked, “Control your VP!” It was a very civil gathering in Josh’s office around his conference table, which was extended on this historic occasion to accommodate all the former chiefs. It is precisely this type of behavior that defines civility. You swallow your pride, leave your ego at the door, and put your country first.
With his quiet dignity and love of America, Josh deserves our utmost respect. Norm Ornstein, the veteran political analyst, summed it up well — “Josh Bolten understood early that this was a unique period, a wartime transition with a serious economic problem. Long before the election, he was planning with both presidential candidates to make sure it would be a smooth one. Thanks to his leadership, it has been the best transition in our lifetimes.”
Obama should be honored to have Chief Bolten guide his team into the presidency.