You have to wonder sometimes why Presidents even run for re-election, given how things usually turn out. Second terms have a way of veering into wild and menacing terrain, spiked with indictments and scandals and betrayal and grief. Some friends become less friendly because they know you are on your way to retirement while they are on their way to the next campaign. Your team gets tired, the ideas stale, and the fumes of power more toxic. It was through those badlands that President George W. Bush trudged last week, and for once he was walking alone. "The problem is that the President doesn't want to make changes," says a White House adviser who is not looking for a West Wing job, "but he's lost some of his confidence in the three people he listens to the most." Those three are his Vice President, Dick Cheney, whose top aide, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, has been charged with brazenly obstructing the investigation into who leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame; Bush senior adviser Karl Rove, who while not indicted has still emerged as a player in the scandal; and chief of staff Andrew Card, who gets some of the blame for bungling the response to Hurricane Katrina and even more for the botched Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. "All relationships with the President, except for his relationship with Laura, have been damaged recently," the White House adviser says. The closest aide who is undamaged is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice--who is off minding the rest of the world--and, of course, Bush himself. "The funny thing is everybody's failing now, in which case perhaps it's time to look at George Bush's relationship with George Bush."
Especially since, above all things, Bush values loyalty, both to his friends and to his own beliefs. He does not abandon either easily, so these next weeks pose an interesting dilemma. The thing about the wilderness is that if you stay there, you die. That's why the worst week of Bush's presidency actually brought with it a quiet sense of relief among some of his restless aides. "This has wakened them from their notion of infallibility," says a Bush adviser. Those who have been arguing for what would count in this White House as radical change--fresh faces, shiny plans, a wider exchange of ideas--felt that at last they had some leverage because Bush could no longer insist that everything was working just fine.
What no one can know but everyone can spin is whether this week marked a point of no return or a turning point. Top advisers have all but written off the rest of the year as a loss. The aim is to relaunch Bush's presidency in January with a new agenda rolled out in his State of the Union address, now that Social Security reform lies crumpled in a ditch. But to do that, he would need to adapt the style and system that served him well for four years but has now demonstrably failed; add new blood to a team that functions as a palace guard but not as an early-warning system or idea factory; and summon the charisma from his days as a candidate to reconnect with Americans in what has become his last campaign.
THE WEEK FROM HELL