Trump Card?

Eight years ago, a broken-hearted Andrew Card Jr. sat with James Baker in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, handing the keys over to Warren Christopher, Mark Gearan, and, later, John Podesta. “He just was flattened,” recalls Gearan. “He was a loyal Bush guy.” Today, as George W. Bush’s first appointee, Card finds himself talking with Podesta about taking the keys back – at least in some imaginary world where elections end.

“When I first met George W., I was surprised,” said Card, now proposed chief of staff to the maybe president-elect, in an interview more than a year ago. “I thought he was going to be Yankee, Brahmin-ish, Yale. Instead he had a Texas swagger, he was wearing cowboy boots, he was chewing tobacco. Sometimes he would use locker-room language that you wouldn’t expect from a Bush.”

That was back in 1979, when Card was a 32-year-old state legislator trudging across Massachusetts helping to organize a presidential campaign for “Poppy” Bush. Quite likely, he saw in him something of his own father. Andrew Card Sr. was also a family hero devoted to public service, but one who never earned a higher office than town counsel in Holbrook, Mass. As in the Bush clan, there was a feisty grandmother, five siblings, and a compound in Maine. Only the Cards had a lot less money and, arguably, a tougher work ethic.

Card labored for Poppy ever since, and now answers to his son. “I know President Bush was happy to see him take over the Republican National Convention,” says former Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and one of Card’s best friends. “In many ways, if you look at the four most successful aspects of George W.’s candidacy, it was the convention and the three debates, and those were the things Andy Card was put in charge of. And I think in fact the governor stayed away from Andy Card for most of the campaign because he was too close to his father. But when the chips were down, and he really needed somebody to produce a great show, he chose the right guy.”

In a town like D.C., where you can’t tell you’re alive unless you can feel a knife in your back, a surprising number of people seem to like Andy Card. And never have warm feelings been so badly needed. If Bush does win the White House, he’ll face a split Congress, an almost evenly divided electorate, and a Democratic Party that will be scheming midterm-election strategy from the get-go. George W. ran for president as a uniter, not a divider, but after all the name-calling and chad-counting, it’s going to be hard for many Democrats to stomach the jovial techniques he employed to woo Democrats in Texas. If he tries his famously playful headlock in D.C., he might just find himself pinned to the mat.

“We used to call him ‘Crash’ Card, because whenever we had bad news to take to the president, we would always send Andy. He could lay out the case, make a rational argument, and then suffer the blows.”

But the Beltway crowd know they can make nice with Card, who’s charged with appointing White House employees, preparing the confirmation of Cabinet secretaries, dealing with the media, and jump-starting a stalled transition process. Card not only has the right résumé – jobs in the Reagan and Bush White Houses, secretary of Transportation under Bush, lobbyist for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association and most recently for GM – he also has crazy mojo.

“He’s much smoother than I am,” says former secretary of Transportation and Bush chief of staff Samuel Skinner. “I don’t know anybody who dislikes Andy.”

“He’s a good guy who has been rewarded for it,” says Mary Matalin, who worked with him in the Bush era. “And he did it without the screwing-somebody-else-to-get-there machinations.”

If such praise from fellow party members seems de rigueur, you don’t know Washington. But Card has also managed to cozy up to Democrats. Paul Begala, adviser to Clinton and Gore and one of our era’s more intense partisans, spares Card. “I would have to join the choir in praise of Andy,” he says. “He’s a hell of a guy.” Gearan and Roy Neel, now Gore’s transition pick, have met regularly with Card over lunch to trade deputy-of-chief-of-staff war stories. “Look, I’m the guy who was for Dukakis and they engineered the Willie Horton thing,” Gearan says. “So I would have the predisposition. But I loved going to lunch with him. He’s my friend. I think he’s a great guy.”

Card could be the invulnerable aide, the political equivalent of Bruce Willis’s character in Unbreakable. In 1980, when rumors swirled that Ford would be Reagan’s vice-president, Card, then Bush’s convention whip, sneered to a reporter: “Even with their combined age, their IQ level isn’t up to what it should be.” Within months he was working for Reagan; this past summer, he was one of the few at Ford’s bedside after he suffered a stroke during the convention. For five years, Card championed the causes of the Big Three auto companies, a job he described as “herding cats.” But his most remarkable feat was the way he handled the ouster of his boss in the Bush White House, chief of staff John Sununu, when Sununu’s use of government planes for personal travel had made him a media liability.

“We used to call him ‘Crash’ Card, because whenever we had bad news to take to the president, we would always send Andy,” says Fitzwater. “That’s because he could lay out the case, make a rational argument, and then suffer the blows. The best example is when John Sununu sent him to the president to argue his case. The president sent him back to Sununu to tell him it was time to go.” Today Sununu still loves him.

For Card, the sununu debacle was a turning point. With Sununu distracted, White House staffers watched Pat Buchanan race around New Hampshire in early ‘92, ripping into Bush without correction or chastisement. When Bush lost, Card was devastated. “I think for President Bush, loyalty may have become a little bit of a character flaw,” said Card. “I think he was too loyal to John Sununu for too long. I love John Sununu, but I think he should have left the White House in May or June of ‘91. But having said that, John Sununu was very loyal to George Bush after he was removed as chief of staff and was very constructive in the 1992 campaign.”

As chief of staff for Bush’s son, Card may well get an opportunity to rewrite history. “I think those of us who worked for and respected George W.’s father feel as if George W. has given us a chance to say, ‘We were right. President Bush was a great guy,’ ” said Card.

If George W.’s imagined White House becomes a reality, Card will need every bit of his charm to keep the agenda on track. “House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is ideologically driven, and so he’ll be tough,” says Fitzwater. “And also he’s so beholden to the labor unions, he’s got to press the labor point of view. That makes it tough to deal with. Beyond that, I don’t really know. I mean, Democratic Whip David Bonior, just because he’s an asshole. The rest of them are probably fine.”

In the unending nightmare that is this election month, Card also experienced a personal loss. The day after Vote Night (we can no longer call it Election Night), he traveled to the bedside of his mother, Joyce. She had suffered for many years with Alzheimer’s and died a little more than a week later.

Friends say Card can handle that stress, too. “This is the happiest man on earth,” says his sister Alison Kaufman. “The glass isn’t always half full, it’s all full.”

Unless the glass breaks. “The half-life of chiefs of staff in Washington is about six months, and he’s got to understand that’s a real part of the equation,” says Sununu. “When something goes well, you have to make sure the president gets all the credit, and when something goes bad, you have to make sure you get blamed. And the better you do the job, the more you erode your own personal political capital.”

At least Card has plenty in the bank. “It’s a brilliant choice,” says Gearan, assuming Bush does win. “Whether it’s reality or not, time will tell.”

Trump Card?