How Washington really works

Washington works by way of a unique, gravity-defying gravitas. The city is run by room-tilters and bobblehead-makers — power auras that have little to do with official titles such as Senate leader or White House chief of staff.

Drop in virtually anywhere along Washington’s cocktail circuit and you will discover that some of the capital’s big-titled people can tilt a room — just by entering it — but most cannot. Watch what happens when a room-tilter enters. Suddenly, but as silently as osmosis, the sipping and chattering pols, pundits and lobbyists put themselves into capillary action. They ooze toward the luminary du jour until they are clustered around, maybe hoping to catch an earful, but mostly just sucking up, big-time, on the theory that, well, you never know. No titled leader of today’s Senate or House can tilt a room — but McCain and Hillary can.

Seeing the bobblehead-makers do their thing is far harder. You have to wangle your way into a staff meeting in any of the capital’s overlapping power circles. But even then you will miss the greatest bobblehead show on Earth _ unless you are special enough to win, woo or buy your way (see: Jack Abramoff Does Washington) into one of the White House staff meetings that take place early each weekday morning in the West Wing.

Only then can you see, by dawn’s early light, the making of the national sausage. And only then, for the past five years, would you have discovered that the individual who has what used to be the top title in the White House _ chief of staff _ was not the staff’s chief bobblehead-maker. But his deputy was. Andrew (Call Me Andy) Card was easily the Bush White House’s best-titled, best-dispositioned and best-liked insider. But Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove has always been the staff’s one and only bobblehead-maker. If you looked around the table in the Roosevelt Room or wherever else Rove started speaking strategy, you could not help but see the heads start bobbling (see also: nodding) in agreement.

And all of that is why President Bush _ after weeks of hearing top Republicans suggest and demand a shakeup of Bush’s top team _ announced Tuesday that he has accepted Card’s resignation and replaced him with Joshua Bolten, a very smart, very faceless loyal Bush insider who once worked for Card and then became director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The point of today’s PowerPoint presentation is that Josh Bolten could not tilt any room he entered anywhere along the Washington cocktail power circuit. Even if he entered it with Andy Card _ and they were both riding a Grand Old Party elephant.

Bush can and may add gravitas to his staff by appointing a gray-eminence outsider such as former-senator-turned-actor Fred Thompson to serve as a counsel. But the only way Bolten will ever instigate any head-bobbing will be when he calls on Rove to speak. If he can.

For the unasked question now is: Will Rove stay? The only place to get the answer is on the ninth floor of a nondescript building at 1400 New York Avenue N.W. That is where Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is probing alleged crimes in the disclosure to journalists of the identity of ex-CIA covert operative Valerie Plame.

Most recently, Rove and Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley have come under Fitzgerald’s renewed investigation. It centers upon the belated discovery of an e-mail in which Rove informed Hadley that he had spoken with Time magazine’s Matt Cooper about Plame. (Neither Rove nor Hadley had originally mentioned this to investigators.) Even then, Rove’s subsequent version given to investigators of his conversation with Cooper differs significantly from the far more damaging version that Cooper gave in another-mail to his Time editor. Fitzgerald is reportedly at the end of his probe and we will soon know if he intends to seek an indictment of Rove and/or Hadley.

If Hadley is indicted, it will significantly alter national security policy processing on the inside. But frankly, the low-keyed Hadley is no Bush-team bobblehead-maker. And he could not tilt a room tonight even if he too were riding along on Card and Bolten’s elephant.

But if Rove is indicted, yes, that will profoundly affect the way the Bush White House makes strategy and policy. So it is that Fitzgerald looms as the key figure who will decide whether or not there will be a real shakeup in the Bush White House. It is a role that in many White Houses was performed by the president.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)