Joshua Bolten


One of the biggest jobs in Washington is chief of staff to the president of the United States. Joshua bolten. Treats is to an inside look at life as chief of staff. He served in the role from two thousand six to two thousand nine which your years that included a lot of very early mornings. Thanks to the early rising President Bush, if you're working directly for the president as I was chief of staff he got to his desk at about six forty five every morning, pretty punctually. And he he'd been already been up for an hour and a half, and he was raring to go. And if you're chief of staff you Andy card used to get in at five thirty in order to prepare himself to talk to the president. I shaved it pretty close and used to get in round six fifteen. Which gave me a half hour to prepare. But I was scrambling for that half hour before I would go down and visit with the president first thing in the morning Josh's career with President Bush began a full two years before he was even elected president we chat with Josh about his most frightening time in DC by laughter was the key to making the job feel less heavy and have he decompressed after leaving the White House? I'm Andrew Kaufman. And this is the strategic presented by the George W Bush institute. What happens when he crossed the forty third president late night, sketch, comedy and compelling conversation. This strategic has a podcast more from the word strategically which was appointed by us in how in braced by the George W Bush administration we highlight the Americans feared of leadership and compassion through thought provoking conversations. And we're reminded that the most effective leaders are the ones who laughed. Join today by the Harley motorcycle riding bass player for the rock band. The compassionate s- who also happen to be White House chief of staff, and now he's the CEO the business roundtable, I think we can call him the most interesting man in Washington, Josh Bolten. Thanks so much for joining us. Thank you, Andrew. And we're also co hosted today by Holly coups, Mitch the executive director of the Bush institute. Holly, thank you again afternoon. So Josh, I remember I've watched I watched a lot of TV, and I try and tie everything back to TV and the only chief of staff, I can think of on TV was Leo mcgarry on the west wing how close to Leo mcgarry. Do you think you are? If you've been watching the show. We did watch the show because the show was on during the two thousand campaign. And so we all watched it. And when the administration started in two thousand one about maybe just a few months into the year, the whole cast of the west wing came to came to see us. Oh, cool at the west wing, and they you know, they filtered around and partnered up with their with their real counterparts. Oh, wow. At the time. I was deputy chief of staff and the deputy chief of staff on that show was named Josh something. And I had a lot of people say to me. Gosh. That's you know, there's that show on TV. They're even using your name and people not realizing that. I was life imitating art rather than rather than vice versa. They I thought the show was was pretty accurate it, you know, they had a lot of writers who had experience from the Clinton administration in working in the west wing. And so they they kind of captured some of the essence of what it's what it's like to be in the White House chief of staff role, not so much. I think Andy card was was closer to that avuncular model that they had on the show than I was when I became chief of staff. How would you describe your styles? Chief-of-staff? Oh, just trying to hang on. I think. I became chief of staff at the beginning of after are the after the administration had been there for five years. So Andy card was the iron man of chiefs of staff, and I I had big shoes to fill in following him. So I didn't start until early two thousand six, but I started at a at a pretty difficult time for the administration because in particular because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we're going very badly and were very unpopular both in in the general population and on Capitol Hill. And we were headed into an election amid term election season, which we knew that the in large part because of the unpopular pop unpopularity of those wars, we were we were likely to lose both the house and the Senate. So I came in at a at a pretty difficult and sober time. But I also came in into an office that was accustomed at that point. Accustomed to vary. Well, running White House operation where people understood their roles, and and and the the president was I think comfortable with the kind of structure, we had we changed the personnel around a bit when I came in. That was part of the reason for for bringing me in when the president did. But it was I inherited a functional operation from Andy card. And and I'd like to think we. Strengthened it from there. So Josh, you mentioned that when you came in in owes sex, you know, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at a critical point you then had the financial crisis a few years later. People talk about the way to the world being on the president shoulders, but what did the weight of the world? How did you feel that did that feel like you had the way to the world on you too? And how do you manage that as chief of staff, you know, I had a difficult in serious job. But I never felt the way to the world on my my shoulders. I've heard other chief former chiefs of staff say that I've heard him say it's the worst job in Washington James baker's, I think famous for saying that you you got target painted on your back. Think Rahm Emanuel said, you know, he there was a show about chiefs of staff a documentary. He he looked straight into the camera and says, it's hell, and I my experience was different. I. It was a really hard job. And and the stakes were very important. But I never felt a great burden. You know? I was I was probably there at the office typically sixteen hours a day. Your car was always there when I got in and when I left. Yeah. Well, if you worked for President Bush, you gotta get in early and I'm not I'm not an early bird. I'm a night owl. No bass player is we have. That's right. You can't be you can't be in a rock and roll band and be an early bird, but the president is an early bird. So. I was in the in the preceding five years when I was deputy chief of staff and budget director. I was able to, you know, slack off and barely make it in for the seven thirty AM senior staff meeting, but if you're working directly for the president as I was as chief of staff he got to his desk at about six forty five every morning, pretty punctually, and he'd he'd been already been up for an hour and a half, and he was raring to go. And if you're chief of staff you Andy card used to get in at five thirty in order to prepare himself to talk to the president. I shaved it pretty close in used to get in around six fifteen which gave me a half hour to prepare. But I was scrambling for that half hour before I would go down and visit with the president first thing in the morning. But I, you know, even with that. And I rarely went home before. Well, ten o'clock at night would have been an early night. Even with that. I never felt depressed. And I genuinely think I've every day when I you know, came through the gates of the west wing. In a in a nice, armored vehicle being driven by secret service agents. I might add. I felt lucky I felt like this. You know, this is an extraordinary privilege. And I think if you bring that attitude to work every day, it's it's hard to feel oppressed. Most important thing though, was President Bush's attitude because I saw him, you know, first thing in the morning last thing before he headed up to the residents every day through some really tough times. And I saw him disappointed. I saw a mad plenty of times. I never saw him discouraged her pessimistic. And and if you gotta if you've got a leader who brings that kind of attitude to the office every day that affects everybody in the building. Did you feel that way even during the financial crisis, which was a really tough, and you know, changing period every single day. Now, the financial crisis was. You know, I get asked periodically. What what was the scariest moment for you in the White House? And I was I was deputy chief of staff and therefore acting chief of staff on nine eleven in the White House and people assume I'm going to say that and nine eleven was of course, by far the most horrifying. Tragedy that, you know, anybody's encountered in government in in a very long time. So so what it that was you know, that you can't there's nothing more horrifying than that day in my memory. But in terms of just being frightened and not sure whether we were doing the right thing, I gotta say it was not the first year of the presidency in two thousand one it was the last year in two thousand eight and and in fact last month's of the presidency when we were going through the financial crisis. And we're on the precipice of what could have been worse than the great, depression, and weren't sure that we were doing the right things to to try to prevent it. It was it was a lot of improvisation and direction changes. So that was that was an unusually tough period and. President President Bush was the same. And you know, we we had lots of light moments. And he he. He always took it upon himself. Not to if he felt afflicted he always made. Sure, the people didn't see that. And he he was the he was the comforter and chief during a lot of that. I I remember one meeting in particular when the Treasury Secretary and fed chairman and the president of the New York fed. Asked me for time to come in and see the president right in the midst of the crisis is the markets were melting down. And they were coming in to ask the president to authorize them to take a proposal to the hill for an appropriation of seven hundred fifty billion dollars limit. Let me repeat that that's billion with a bee's seven hundred and fifty billion dollars the congress. They're the proposal was that we need to ask the congress to appropriate that money, and what was it for. It was to bail out the banks that caused the problem in the first place. So a really tough ask and very tough spot to be in. And President Bush asked, you know, some really good questions of the folks as they were making their presentation. And then he then he turned to the fed chairman, Ben Bernanke key. Who is who is a professor at Princeton before he came to work in government and had written his doctoral dissertation on the great, depression and the had ban. What what's likely to happen? If we don't do this. And then said, Mr President, it could be as bad or worse than the great depression. And there was silence in the room. And the president said, well, I think that makes it easy. And after that meeting he you know, he made his decision. He told them to go ahead. Take the proposal to Capitol Hill. He went around the he didn't sneak out of the room with, you know, with his shoulders hunched or anything like that. Despite knowing that he was taking on board something that was going to make him deeply unpopular with most of America, including the relatively smallish percentage of people that still supported him. But he didn't slink out of the room. He went around individually to each of the people that were there presenting to the Treasury Secretary to the fed chairman and others any took a moment with each of them, and privately and said, we'll get through this. This'll work go home and get some rest, then we walked back into the Oval Office. And he he turned to the it was the communications director, Dan Bartlett in may. And he turned to us in, you know, with a little bit of a smile said if this is Roosevelt or Hoover for damn sure, I'm going to be Roosevelt. Right. So you. In the midst of the financial crisis. That was what six eight weeks before the presidential election of two thousand and eight the administration was are also working on a transition plan for whoever was going to come an office that was put into place by President Bush. Yeah, we had a pretty good idea. Eight weeks before the election who was coming. But you had that going on onto just in the sense of. Trying to be prepared and prepared the next administration for that. So a lot on your plate. Yeah. There were you know, normally an on the way out the last few months of administration, you're running on fumes in your everybody's packing up and the wrapping up the last few initiatives that you wanna be wanna get taken care of. And if it's a responsible administration which most have been you're doing your best to prepare the next crew to to come in to a to a reasonably good situation. We didn't have that luxury. But we were determined to execute as good a transition as we possibly could. And that that came from an instruction that President Bush gave me in early two thousand eight so almost a year before the actual end of the administration. He he said to me were we're. Added into a presidential transition really for the first time in modern history. When the homeland of the United States is under threat, and it's a moment of owner ability for the United States. Normally that might not matter that you're in. Oh, the the new folks aren't aren't really well established for the first few weeks or months of the administration, but with the country actually under physical threat, he said, we've got a responsibility to do a a really effective transition, especially on the national security side. So we started to work actually in the summer of two thousand eight we started the work with both campaigns to help them prepare their transitions and that for the White House. The effort was led. Led by young man, named Blake goddess men who had been the president's personal aide, and then went off the business school, and he had he had just graduated from business school and was on a yacht somewhere in the. See, and he was he was planning to go off. He had a great job going to work for a private nice private equity house in Boston. And I reached him on the yacht. Because unfortunately, our our long-term time deputy chief of staff for operations, Joe Hagan. Who's who's terrific wasn't able to stay for the last six months of the administration, and it's the deputy chief for operations who really asked to run the transition. So I reached Blake on the yacht. And I said your country needs you, and he said I showed up, and he did a he did a brilliant job managing the transition and to this day. The there are a lot of folks in the Obama administration who will say nothing nice about the Bush administration. But they will all say that they were they were deeply appreciative and benefited from the the professional ineffective way that we that we tried to do the transition to the Obama administration. Country before party always always in that, you know, that was a George W Bush's is a is a heck of a politician in in a partisan in or a true Republican partisan. But there were there was never any doubt. On any single day that I worked in the White House that that country came and principal came at a party. And this was one of those examples, and that I mean, the the president gave me the instruction to start the transition before we were pretty sure who was gonna win the when the election, but it by the end of it. It was pretty clear, and he didn't he didn't say take the foot off the gas. He said put it on the gas in particular because we were we were going to be having a president who did not have a lot of governing experience. And and there would be people around him who who were pretty fresh to it. And we had a responsibility to do to do the best job. We could to prepare them, especially for their national security responsibilities. One of the things he touched on earlier that like to get back to a little bit is President Bush's sense of humor in this. Your sense of humor as as one of his leading deputies. How did that sense of humor permeate the White House? What what effect that have on everybody? You know? When when I left the White House, the the the photographers officers an official photographers office at the White House. And there are I think at least three or four photographers whose only job is to photograph the president who. When he's not. And you know in his residence or when President Bush wasn't at the ranch or a Camp, David. He's photographed constantly. They take thousands of photographs a day. Anyway, they put together a book for me of, you know, photos from my time that I that. I actually it's a whole series of notebooks from my time working in the administration, and the thing I noticed. As I was I was showing the notebook to a friend was how many photos in the Oval Office where laughing and that came from the top the president kept it light. He he took the issues very seriously. He took his decision making responsibilities very seriously. He did not take himself seriously. And and that that created a lot of a lot of light moments, and you know. Plenty of plenty of silly potty humor and. And and other stuff. I I remember I remember, you know, stuff like that. Blake whom I mentioned he was he started out as the personal aide to the president. And he would do stuff like knowing that President Bush always insisted on being responsible for taking care of Barney the dog he he went out and bought one of those fake dog poops and put it in the middle of the rug and office. Fake, of course, fake fake. But the president didn't know that. So he was headed to the bathroom to get some towels to clean. He felt strongly. It was his dog. It was his response. Don was going to clean up the dogs poop on this route. Yep. He was Ray. He was raised. Right. But there was a lot of that kind of stuff and. And we worked with a lot of funny people and the president enjoyed good humor. So it. Back to Holly's question that that's a that's a big part of what made what made the judge made the job less heavy for all of us was that we we laughed a lot. Let's talk about you for a second. You probably don't want to. But how'd you take your experience and lessons you learned into your private sector career afterwards? And how did you think about what you want to do next after such a intense eight plus years working for George W Bush? The most important thing is I wanted to take a hell of a lawn map because I because I was I was ten years sleep-deprived, especially the last two. Yeah. Because I worked all eight years in the Bush White House, and then two years before that I was the policy director of the campaign. So none none of those jobs was a light job. But especially the last three years as chief of staff. Having to keep the president's schedule. And then do my own work at night. Was really crimped asleep. And I I was a lot tired or than I realized I was me. I think it was a full year. Before I was restored to in physical and mental health. So my main my main objective when I when I left the White House was. Get get rested in and get healthy. And. I found a great way to do that. Which was I was invited by my alma mater, Princeton to go to go teach there. Which turned out to be a much harder job than I expected it. But, but you could actually, you know, like sleep as thirty classes. No, no, no, no. I scheduled no class before eleven AM. I that was one that was one of the prerequisites to my agreement to do it was that no class that I was teaching would start before eleven AM. And that was a great way to both refresh myself and to reflect on the experience that I'd had and and try to take away some lessons for the balance of my career and most of the lessons. I took away were were lessons that I learned by observing how President Bush handled himself and handled handled others how he how he behaved as a leader. I think our final question for you. You're moderating our engagement tonight or engage at the Bush center, presented by Highland capital management. Our topic is Camp David tonight's for doing all these moderating. You're thinking. Telling story, I'm just I candy for this thing before we let you run off and do that what is one topic that we as a country aren't talking about enough that you think we should be talking more about? Well, I can tell you what I think we should be talking less about. The thing. I think we we should be talking more about is. And a lots of people are talking about it. But I think it's I think it's the most important thing. Once we return, I hope we've returned to civil discourse in this country, and and the most important policy topic. I think for people to talk about is how do we make sure the United States remains the most innovative nation on earth? That's our that's our strength that that is our prosperity. That is our character. I know the Bush institute is is working on a lot of elements of that. But a, but a lot of things have to come together for the United States to remain the innovative engine of the world economy and begins with education, which annot the the institute is is focusing a lot of its effort on. But it's not in my in my view, it's not education in the traditional sense of you know, school buildings and things like that. It's how do we how do we prepare people for a world in which at least in the United States, unskilled? Labour will be less and less in demand and technical skills will be increasingly in demand, and we and we need to shift. Our way of thinking about how we how we bring up our young people with the right skills for the for the modern economy because it's it's going to change much more rapidly. I think than most people expect the the kinds of changes where we're going to see over the next couple of decades. I think are ones that have been a long time coming in and like many dramatic changes. They. They they come up on your very slowly. And then when they really start they happen. Suddenly that I think that's true the computing age, and now as we enter the the artificial intelligence age, I think it's going to it's going to continue to creep up on a slowly. And then happen very, suddenly and as a country, we need to be prepared. Is that something you're seeing a lot of discussion on in your work as as CEO the business roundtable, I am. And it's in most of the most of the leaders in in the business roundtable, which is two hundred of the two hundred CEOs of some of America's largest companies almost all of them face. The same challenge of finding a a well qualified workforce to. To do the jobs of the future. And I think would would this challenge along with many others business has a new role to play in our society as as people have lost faith in in some of the other big institutions in in government in, unfortunately, in churches, I think our business leaders need to step up and and lead on issues like skills training in this country in ways that they haven't in the past which makes my which makes my current job a terrific place to be in. At this point in the in the twilight of my career, Josh thank you so much for spending the time with us, really. Appreciate it. Holly. Thank you as well. Thanks. What is your? If you enjoy today's episode would like to help us spread the word about the strategic to please give us a five star review until your friends to subscribe for available on apple podcasts Spotify and all the major listening apps if you're tuning in on a smartphone tapper swipe over the cover art. You'll find episode notes with helpful information and details he may have missed the strategic was produced, but you Anna Pappas at the George W Bush institute in Dallas, Texas. Thank you for listening.

Coming up next