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From an Austin diner to chief of staff

This  isn’t a White House “shake up."  It’s the opposite: a “circling of the wagons.” Or, in Texas Speak, it’s Bush insisting on his deeply-held belief in “dancing with the ones that brung ya.” By Howard Fineman.

WASHINGTON – There are some reporters here who seem to think (or at least they have written) that George W. Bush has “shaken up” his administration by replacing Chief of Staff Andy Card with OMB Director Joshua B. Bolten. It’s true that Card was burned out, and that Bolten had little or nothing to do with a series of administrative disasters (Miers, Katrina, Dubai Ports) that occurred on Card’s watch. But this isn’t a “shake up,” at least not so far. It’s the opposite: a “circling of the wagons.” Or, in Texas Speak, it’s Bush insisting on his deeply-held belief in “dancing with the ones that brung ya.”

Bolten is one of the ones that brung him. He was part of the Bush inner circle in Austin well before the future president ever thought of hiring Card – who Bush liked, to be sure, but who he regarded as a Washington hand whose main job was to keep the paper flowing (and, in Paul O’Neill’s famous account) the cheeseburgers arriving.

The truly astonishing thing about the Bush Way is how little the real inner circle has changed. For years, even decades, it has consisted of mostly the same people: Karl Rove, of course; Clay Johnson, the personnel man; Karen Hughes, the spinner; Dan Bartlett, communications director; Condi Rice, who began in Austin as foreign policy “mother hen;” Harriet Miers, longtime counsel; Scott McClellan, press guy… and Bolten, who began as the domestic policy “briefer” – a matched set with Condi in substance and function.

All of these people were with Bush in Austin, either at the governor’s office or in the campaign headquarters downtown on Congress Street. In one way or another, they are all still on the job, wagons drawn in ever-tighter circumference.

If you think the Bush SUV is being driven in the wrong direction — and most America voters, judging by the polls, evidently do — getting rid of Andy Card isn’t the answer. He was a gear in the drive train, to be sure, but he certainly wasn’t the driver, or even the map reader, or even a back seat kibitzer.

A real “shakeup” would mean replacing the military and diplomatic leadership that led the nation into a war in Iraq that most Americans have now concluded did not do the most important thing: make us safer in the war on terror. A real “shakeup” would mean replacing Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and, yes, even Secretary of State Condi Rice.

Don’t hold your breath
I’ve covered Bush since early 1994 (first interviewed him in 1987) and if there is one thing that characterizes him above all, it’s loyalty. He is a creature of habit in all things, including people.

This is a great strength. For example, it allowed his 2000 presidential campaign to survive disasters that would have blown other organizations to pieces. It allows to him to persevere in causes, and not get distracted by the slithering mass of vipers in Washington.

But he doesn’t like change, and Bolten isn’t change. He is a member in good standing of the core group that Bush and Karl Rove began assembling years ago.

Here’s how it happened
Putting together the first pieces of his presidential campaign in 1999, George W. Bush needed a domestic policy advisor -– a staffer who could educate him in the world of wonks, but who was also a “good guy.” In Bushspeak, that meant loyal and discreet, of course, but it also meant a guy with a sense of humor, who didn’t take himself too seriously: a brainy geek, yes, but cooler than you’d think and thus a suitable new pledge for Beta Theta Bush.

Bolten had a sterling pedigree. His father had worked at the CIA, which Bush the Elder had once run. He’d worked on the Hill for the Senate Finance Committee, the cockpit of Republican economics. A young staffer in the Bush One administration, Bolten had impressed all the right people -– especially fellow Princeton alumnus (and lifelong Bush Family advisor) James A. Baker. Then Bolten had bolted: jetting off to London to make a pile at Goldman Sachs.

Now Bolten was ready for the Job With Big Potential, and Bush, on the advice of his father‘s circle as well as his own inner circle, was reaching out to him. On paper, all well and good. But would the two men hit it off? Bush wouldn’t want a tutor/advisor he couldn’t stand.

It was a late-night walk through the street of Austin, Texas, that secured the job. The night before his job interview, Bolten had dinner, and then, to get some air and his bearings, had gone out for a stroll -– and eventually found himself (as is easy to do in Austin) in a rough part of town. He ended up having coffee at a diner with down-on-their-luck types, listening to their stories and encouraged them to try to get their personal acts together.

Bolten recounted his itinerary the next day to Bush, who was charmed by the Victorian earnestness -– and innocence -– of the story. Now here, Bush evidently thought, was the guy to devise the mechanics of the “compassionate conservative” principles around which he and Rove were building the campaign.

Bolten at that moment became a Made Man in the Bush Family, and has been one ever since. Ironically (Bush’s critics would say, not surprisingly), as Budget Director Bolten has presided over the production of some of the biggest federal deficits in history, and Bush has tried to put the clamps on social-welfare spending in ways that most Democrats find less than compassionate.

And all along Bolten has been just what Bush wanted: loyal, discreet, self-effacing -– and funny and cool: a guy who plays in a rock band, who has a penchant for motor cycles, and who doesn’t mind being seen at dinner parties with movie stars.

Though he has a taste for show biz, Bolten hasn’t been eager for the spotlight. Now he will be in the glare full time. He is going to have to bring in new staff -– a new director of the OMB, for starters. Some will call it all a “shakeup.”

Don’t be fooled.