Monday, January 15, 2001

Tristater helps manage Bush transition

John Bridgeland will advise on domestic policy

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — One knock on George W. Bush is that he turned to retreads for his new administration, people who know how to connect the dots but may be missing the optimism and passion for government that the Clinton crowd had eight years ago. He also chose people like John Bridgeland.

        The deputy domestic policy adviser — who, at 40, doesn't look a day over 29 — is a conservative idealist drawn to public service by liberals like John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

        In an eighth-floor office suite a few blocks from the White House, Mr. Bridgeland, who grew up in Indian Hill, is charting Mr. Bush's transition from presidential candidate to president.

        On the floor against one wall, black binders are ar ranged in careful rows, filled with the thousands of details Cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs will need to know to run the federal government in six days.

        These briefing books are notoriously voluminous, but Mr. Bridgeland has tried to keep them as focused as possible, kind of like “The Department of Labor for Dummies.”

        But it is no joke.

        After what seemed like an endless election campaign and more than a month of recounts and acrimony in Florida, Bush strategists like Mr. Bridgeland are now pushing 14-hour days to make sure everything gets nailed.

        The task, compressed by the delayed election verdict, is huge.

        The Bush transition team is in the same downtown office building where, a year ago, government agents saved the nation from the Year 2000 computer bug, and staffers have similar feelings of anxiety and exhilaration.

        One scrawled, “Welcome to the Fish Bowl” on a chart board near the reception desk.

        The staff has to prepare nominees for Senate confirmation hearings, a taxing chore in a climate where any perceived indiscretion — as Linda Chavez, Mr. Bush's first choice for labor secretary learned — can be fatal to an appointment.

        They have to interview Clinton staffers in every federal department and agency, including some not very fond of the conquering Republicans, about regulatory deadlines and pending lawsuits.

        They have to hire a staff of their own.

        And they have to figure out how to assure the majority of Americans who did not vote for Mr. Bush that their man can do the job.

        “It comes down to the power of your ideas,” says Mr. Bridgeland, who at one point had a hundred telephone messages waiting at his desk. “Whether you are able to attract people to the cause comes down to whether or not your ideas have merit or have a real significant impact on changing people's lives.”

        A former chief of staff to Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Mr. Bridgeland left politics in 1998 for a business venture promoting the role of nonprofits, foundations and corporations in public policy. He was invited to the Bush team in April and spent most of his time at the campaign's Austin, Texas, headquarters, researching and drafting issue papers.

        When the election outcome rested on disputed ballots in Florida, he was sent to Tallahassee to help build Mr. Bush's legal strategy with former Secretary of State James Baker.

        “It was a difficult time,” he says.

        Colleagues think Mr. Bridgeland has the brains — Harvard, University of Virginia law school degrees — and the demeanor to handle White House pressure.

        Friends say he has a rare knack for explaining complex policy issues so everyone can understand.

        “He's one of the few lawyers you like to hang around with,” says Mary Beth Carozza, chief of staff to Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio. “A lot of guys with that much knowledge usually have the ego to go with it. John knows you have to keep your sense of humor.”

        Mr. Portman describes his friend as a superb legislator who understands both process and policy.

        “Rarely do you have somebody who can do both. He's the kind of guy who can put people at ease,” he says.

        Fred Nelson, a one-time chief of staff to Rep. Steve Chabot, R- Ohio, and a former business partner with Mr. Bridgeland, says his colleague is organized and precise, with a reverence for schedules, details and the barrier between work and family.

        “He's thoughtful and has the ability to synthesize information quickly,” he says.

        Mr. Bridgeland lives in McLean, Va., with his wife, Maureen, and three children, Caily, 10; Fallon, 6; and James, 2. His parents, James and Margaret Bridgeland, live in Indian Hill. His father is a former partner and lawyer with Taft, Stettinius & Hollister.

        Mr. Bridgeland was a lawyer in the New York and Paris offices of Davis, Polk & Wardwell, a firm well connected in political and financial circles, but found himself more interested in public policy than high finance.

        As a young man, he says, he admired Mr. Kennedy and Mr. King for “their ability to articulate ideas and inspire young people to work on issues that are greater than themselves.”

        He remembers writing a letter to Theodore Sorensen, a former Kennedy adviser, asking for career advice but not really expecting a reply.

        “He wrote this beautiful letter back saying that you ought to pursue your interests,” Mr. Bridgeland recalls.

        The sourness of the election leaves the Bush team with an immediate hazard: repair the political divisions in the country or succumb to the partisan vitriol that defined much of the Clinton years.

        Mr. Bridgeland, who will direct the Domestic Policy Council, is confident the administration will thrive.

        “My experience is that when you actually sit down and talk to people, the differences are not necessarily that stark and, if they are, at least you can begin a dialogue that provides a nice foundation for getting things done,” he says.

        Mr. Bridgeland says America soon will see Mr. Bush like most people in Texas do — as a leader who can appeal to diverse interests.

        “Look at our agenda. Look at our ideas. Put your predispositions about us aside,” he says. “Give him a chance. Give him an honest chance.”


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