A sullen President George W. Bush is withdrawing more and more from aides and senior staff, retreating into a private, paranoid world where only the ardent loyalists are welcome.
Cabinet officials, senior White House aides and leaders on Capitol Hill complain privately about the increasing lack of “face time” with the President and campaign advisors are worried the depressed President may not be up to the rigors of a tough re-election campaign.
“Yes, there are concerns,” a top Republican political advisor admitted privately Wednesday. “The George W. Bush we see today is not the same, gregarious, back-slapping President of old. He’s moody, distrustful and withdrawn.”
Bush’s erratic behavior and sharp mood swings led White House physician Col. Richard J. Tubb to put the President on powerful anti-depressant drugs after he stormed off stage rather than answer reporters' questions about his relationship with indicted Enron executive Kenneth J. Lay, but White House insiders say the strong, prescription medications seem to increase Bush’s sullen behavior towards those around him.
“This is a President known for his ability to charm people one-on-one,” says a staff member to House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert. “Not any more.”
White House aides say Bush has retreated into a tightly-controlled environment where only top political advisors like Karl Rove and Karen Hughes are allowed. Even White House chief of staff Andrew Card complains he has less and less access to the President.
Among cabinet members, only Attorney General John Ashcroft, a fundamentalist who shares many of Bush’s strict religious convictions, remains part of the inner circle. White House aides call Bush and Ashcroft the “Blue Brothers” because, like the mythical movie characters, “both believe they are on a mission from God.”
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the man most responsible for waging America’s war on terrorism, complains to staff that he gets very little time with the President and gets most of his marching orders lately from Ashcroft. Some on Ridge’s staff gripe privately that Ashcroft is “Bush’s Himmler,” a reference to Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the SS (the German Police) under Adolph Hitler.
“Too many make the mistake of thinking Dick Cheney is the real power in the Bush administration,” says one senior Homeland Security aide. “They’re wrong. It’s Ashcroft and that is reason enough for all of us to be very, very afraid.”
While Vice President Cheney remains part of Bush’s tight, inner circle, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has fallen out of favor and tells his staff that “no matter what happens in November, I’m outta here.”
White House aides say the West Wing has been overtaken by a “siege mentality,” where phone calls and emails are monitored and everyone is under suspicion for “disloyalty to the crown.”
“I was questioned about an email I sent out on my personal email account from home,” says one staffer. “When I asked how they got access to my personal email account, I was told that when I came to work at the White House I gave up any rights to privacy.”
Another staffer was questioned on why she once dated a registered Democrat.
“He voted for Bush in 2000,” she said, “but that didn’t seem to matter. Mary Matalin is married to James Carville and that’s all right but suddenly my loyalty is questioned because a former boyfriend was a Democrat?” Matalin, a Republican political operative and advisor to the Bush campaign, is the wife of former Bill Clinton political strategist James Carville.
Psychiatrists say the increasing paranoia at the White House is symptomatic of Bush’s “paranoid, delusional personality.”
Dr. Justin Frank, a prominent Washington psychiatrist and author of the book, Bush on the Couch, Inside the Mind of the President, says the President suffers from “character pathology,” including “grandiosity” and “megalomania” – viewing himself, America and God as interchangeable.
Dr. Frank also concludes that Bush’s years of heavy drinking “may have affected his brain function – and his decision to quit drinking without the help of a 12-step programs puts him at a far higher risk of relapse.”