In the popular TV show The West Wing, the President's deputy chief of staff is a brainy charmer named Josh Lyman. In the real West Wing, the President's deputy chief of staff is also a brainy charmer named Josh, but that's about where life imitating art--or at least TV--ends.
Unlike the sometimes testy, often-distracted, high-profile Josh Lyman, Joshua Bolten is quiet and self-effacing, a trim man with a prep-school education, a Princeton diploma, and a Goldman Sachs (GS ) pedigree. In fact, Bolten, 47, is so low-profile that almost a year into the Bush Administration, he is virtually unknown to the public.
That's why it's so easy to underestimate the power Bolten wields. Among his responsibilities, Bolten coordinates all Administration policy initiatives, closes deals on Capitol Hill, and since September 11, chairs a new, high-level committee. He has played a pivotal role in issues ranging from anti-terrorism legislation to health-care policy. "He's not a showboater, but he gets results," says Margaret La Montagne Spellings, Bush's chief domestic policy adviser.
TOUGH NEGOTIATOR. Bolten operates with two guiding principles: absolute loyalty to the boss and absolutely no attention to himself. Indeed, his penchant for secrecy befits the son of a career CIA officer. One White House colleague notes that Bolten for months had a sign on his desk declaring: "Who else needs to know?" Bolten has not granted an on-the-record interview since Bush's inauguration, and he turned down numerous BusinessWeek requests for comment.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer says Bolten "doesn't want to" talk to reporters and "doesn't view it as [part of] his position." A rare native Washingtonian in a White House top-heavy with Texans, Bolten "believes his role is to develop the best policy positions but not be a player in his own right," says Representative Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former colleague from the first Bush White House.
That doesn't mean Bolten is a pushover: He is a tough negotiator who honed his "closer" skills at Goldman Sachs in London. When Bush faced imminent defeat in the battle over a patients' bill of rights this summer, Bolten turned up the heat on Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), the House's point man on the issue. After Norwood finally agreed to a deal acceptable to Bush, Bolten marched him into the White House briefing room to announce the compromise--before Norwood's erstwhile allies could try to talk him out of it. One senior Republican aide says Bolten's "extremely tough" tactics could cost Bush over time. "Bolten sacrificed an ally to make sure the President didn't have a [political] loss," the staffer says.
In many ways, the man dubbed "Yosh" by the President is a study in contradictions. He went to the same tony Washington prep school as former Vice-President Al Gore but drives to the White House in an old pickup. He has an Ivy League look yet played lead guitar in a high school rock band. And he's the soft-spoken single guy who turned heads in Bushland by hanging out with Bo Derek at the Republican National Convention.
An outsider in the close circle of Presidential confidants, Bolten had never even met Bush before he was hired as the top policy staffer for the 2000 campaign. He gave up his Goldman Sachs job and in short order won the confidence of the Texas "Iron Triangle"--strategist Karl Rove, communications guru Karen Hughes, and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh--with his command of complex questions.
No wonder Bush keeps increasing the size of Bolten's portfolio. His most recent acquisition: chairman of the Domestic Consequences Principals Committee, whose mission in the aftermath of September 11 is to move quickly with policy responses to terrorist attacks. Among the issues the group has addressed: counterterrorism legislation, an aid package for laid-off workers, and airline- and insurance-industry bailouts.
NICE GUY, TOO. On Capitol Hill, he plays a policy role usually reserved for the Chief of Staff. Working with White House legislative lobbyist Nick Calio--his former boss in Bush I--Bolten sets strategy and cuts deals while Calio sells the Administration's agenda on the Hill. And he decides when and how to present policy options to the President. "His job is to keep the horses pulling in the same direction," says one friend. Although he can be forceful, Bolten is considered one of the few genuine "nice guys" in Washington. "He's hugely talented and enormously easy to get along with," says former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, whom Bolten served as general counsel in the first Bush Administration.
With many of his colleagues preoccupied by the war on terrorism, the secretive Bolten is more valuable than ever as he works to keep the rest of the Bush agenda moving. But he'd rather the outside world not know. As one of his friends notes: "He's happiest when he's out of the limelight." Sorry, Josh.
By Richard S. Dunham