Monday, January 20, 2003

Real-life 'West Wing' drama

Indian Hill native at Bush's side

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For Joseph Hagin, working in the White House as President Bush's deputy chief of staff has amounted to two different jobs in two different worlds.

Joe Hagin, as deputy chief of staff, is a trusted confidant of President Bush.
(White House photo/Eric Draper)
| ZOOM |
One before Sept. 11, 2001, and another after.

"That day changed everything," said the 46-year-old Indian Hill native, a friend and confidant of the Bush family for more than 20 years. "None of us in the White House will ever fully get over it. Our lives changed forever."

Mr. Hagin had been the deputy campaign manager in George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign; he worked as one of the Bush-Cheney team's point men during the six tension-filled weeks of the election recount and, after Mr. Bush was declared winner, worked on the Bush transition team.

He had planned to come back home to Cincinnati to resume his career as vice president for corporate affairs at Chiquita Brands International, but when the president-elect asked him to take one of two deputy chief of staff positions, he accepted.

By this time - halfway through President Bush's term - he had expected to come home to Cincinnati.

But terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the continuing war on terrorism changed all that.

"I can't leave now," Mr. Hagin said, lunching at a downtown Skyline Chili parlor on a holiday break from his White House duties. It was his first extensive interview since returning to the White House.

"We're at war. I'm there for the duration."

On the morning the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, Mr. Hagin was in New York City, visiting the U.S. mission to the United Nations with seven other White House officials.

The director of the U.S. mission's military office broke into a meeting and told them of the strike on the first tower, Mr. Hagin said.

They found a television and watched as the second airliner slammed into World Trade Center.

"At that point, it was clear America was under attack," Mr. Hagin said.

The president was visiting a school in Florida, reading to schoolchildren in a classroom. Mr. Hagin called the president's military aide in Florida and was told, "we're on it."

New York City police hustled Mr. Hagin and other White House officials to the New Jersey shore by motorcade; Mr. Hagin recalls looking across the Hudson River and seeing the twin towers burning.

A New Jersey State Police escort took the motorcade on a high-speed run to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. They boarded a military plane bound for Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where President Bush had been taken to an underground bunker.

But as they flew over Missouri, they learned the president was on his way back to Washington, so they turned around and made for Andrews Air Force Base.

As they were driving back into Washington, they could see the smoke and fire from the Pentagon, which was also attacked.

"We're probably the only people who saw both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on fire that day," Mr. Hagin said.

From Tuesday morning until sometime late Thursday, he worked around the clock, arranging logistics for the president's visits to the Pentagon and to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. He was at Ground Zero with the president, kneeling in the mud, when the president climbed on a flatbed, grabbed a bullhorn and shouted that those responsible would "hear from us soon."

Since then, the White House, never an easy place to work, "has become even more intense," Mr. Hagin said.

"There's a sense of urgency in everything we do now," said Mr. Hagin.

All who work in the White House, Mr. Hagin said, are acutely aware that they come to work each day in a place that could have been a terrorist target on Sept. 11 and may well still be.

"Some people were frightened for a time after 9/11," Mr. Hagin said.

"There's a whole different attitude toward security than there was before."

Tending to the president

For Mr. Hagin, the day-to-day job at the Bush White House is similar in some ways to what he did during the 2000 campaign. While Josh Bolten is the deputy chief of staff for policy issues, Mr. Hagin is in charge of operations, from scheduling presidential operations to working with the White House military office to maintaining everything from the White House physical plant to making sure the paychecks get cut.

But he performs yet another function that isn't part of the job description, senior White House officials say - he serves as a sort of safety valve when the president needs to let off steam.

"I like to say that Joe is in charge of the care and feeding of the president," said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. "The president trusts him; the president is comfortable with him. He is like part of the family."

Mr. Hagin always goes along when the president spends time at his ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Often, Mr. Hagin's phone will ring and it is the president, asking the deputy chief of staff to come along as the president tromps through fields and ravines, chopping wood and clearing brush.

The relationship between Mr. Hagin and the president can be explained in part by his long friendship with the Bush family, dating back to the 1980 campaign, when the young Cincinnatian was the personal aide, or "body man," for the president's father, George H.W. Bush, when he was running for vice president.

When the elder Bush became president eight years later, Mr. Hagin worked in the White House as the president's appointments secretary, alongside another young Cincinnatian in the legislative office, Rob Portman, who later became the 2nd District congressman.

During the Clinton years, Mr. Hagin was back in his hometown, working as vice president of corporate affairs at Chiquita Brands International for another Cincinnatian with deep ties to the Bush family, Carl Lindner.

Bob Olson, general counsel at Chiquita, worked with Mr. Hagin in lobbying the Clinton administration for support in the Cincinnati company's battle with the European Union.

Mr. Hagin, Mr. Olson said, "had a way of getting things done and bringing people together to arrive at a decision."

He was not at all surprised to see Mr. Hagin return to Washington after the 2000 campaign.

"Joe's a very loyal guy, and he wouldn't say no to the president of the United States," Mr. Olson said.

But the loyalty he has shown to the Bush family does not explain the influence he has with this president.

"It matters some that he worked for 41," said Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, referring to the elder Bush, who was the 41st president. "It matters more that the oldest son saw him in the '88 campaign and in his own campaign and trusts him completely."

John Bridgeland, who runs the president's USA Freedom Corps volunteer program, grew up on the same Indian Hill street as Mr. Hagin and has known him all his life.

"He's a calming force in the White House," said Mr. Bridgeland, a former chief of staff to Mr. Portman.

"He keeps his cool."

The president, who has nicknames for nearly everyone on his staff, calls Mr. Hagin "Big Joe."

The trust the president places in him was never more evident than in the spring of 2002, when a small group of senior White House aides, led by Mr. Card, began meeting secretly to put together a plan for creation of a Department of Homeland Security.

The president did not want the plan to get out to the media or congressional leaders. Mr. Hagin was put in charge of making sure that those brought into the circle of planners kept their mouths shut.

"They called me `The Enforcer,'" Mr. Hagin said, laughing. "We had to keep a lid on it. Everybody in D.C. has a constituency, and we knew we would be stepping on some toes."

Mr. Card said that when new staffers were brought into the planning, Mr. Hagin would sit them down in his office and make sure they left understanding that they were not to talk to anyone about their work.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but Joe was kind of the heavy," Mr. Card said. "He'd deliver the message. He carried the cattle prod."

The end result was a Homeland Security package that was announced and went to Capitol Hill in June without a single leak throughout the process, quite a feat in Washington.

For the foreseeable future, Mr. Hagin said, he will continue at the Bush White House, managing a staff of about 4,000 civilian and military workers, along with managing the president's schedule.

"I don't mean to be corny about it," he said, "but I feel like we are doing the right thing for the American people. I'm proud to be part of it."


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