Leadership Lessons from former White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card

Andrew H. Card, Jr., appointed in November 2000, served as Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush from January 2001 to April 2006. In this capacity, he coordinated the priorities of the Administration’s agenda, the development of policies, and appointments of Cabinet Secretaries and senior officials throughout the government. Mr. Card, the second longest tenured White House Chief of Staff, has served in senior government roles for three U.S. Presidents and presently holds numerous positions. Card serves on the Board of Directors of public corporations Union Pacific and Lorillard, on the Business Advisory Board of BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, on the Global Advisory Board of Alexander Proudfoot, on the Advisory Board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and on a number of non-profit boards. 

The Rockefeller Center in collaboration with the Dickey Center hosted a student dinner with Mr. Card before his participation as a panelist in "Spymasters: Can We Kill Our Way Out?" on Wednesday, October 26, at 6:30-8:00 pm, in Filene Auditorium, Moore Hall.

Prior to the student dinner, Nikita Bakhru ’17 sat down with Andrew Card for an interview.

Nikita Bakhru (NB): You served as White House Chief of Staff under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006. Could you please describe that experience?

Andrew Card (AC): You don’t apply to be the president’s Chief of Staff. When the President first asked me, I thought he was asking me to help him transition to government until he said “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about ‘the big one.’” He didn’t say the words “Chief of Staff,” but I knew what he meant. The Chief of Staff’s role is all consuming and includes three responsibilities: the care and feeding of the president, policy formulation, and what I would call “the communications to deliver whatever the president wants done to the people who need to hear it.” The greatest responsibility is actually the care and feeding of the president; that’s making sure the president doesn’t have to worry about “living,” but just making brutally tough decisions. I had to make sure the president never was in a position to make an easy decision because if he’s making an easy decision, he’s wasting a lot of time. Then, it’s the policy formulation, which is taking the momentum the president feels is important from a policy perspective, finding expertise, making sure it is not monolithic in its thinking so that the president does not get monolithic counsel, and then guiding that process so that the president can be well-informed to make the right decision at the right time. Part of my job was to make sure the president was in a good mood because you don’t want him making a decision when he’s in a bad mood – he has to be confident and optimistic to make a decision or people won’t follow it – and then communicating that decision so that people feel passionate about it. The responsibility of the Chief of Staff is not a job; it’s a commitment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The average tenure of a Chief of Staff is 23 months. I did the job for about five and a half years.

NB: Every single day in your job must be different from the day before. In the many years you served in this role, could you identify a single biggest challenge you had to face?

AC: The biggest challenge is time management. Almost everything else has an infinite opportunity. There’s lots of good ideas, wonderful people to meet, places to go… But one thing you have no control over is how many days there are in a week or hours in a day or minutes in an hour. Establishing priority within that context of time requires peripheral vision so that you don’t get captured by tunnel vision or, in other words, getting overly invested in one policy. You need to understand what needs to be done in the context of the presidency and the world.

NB: On the other side, could you identify a moment throughout those years that you saw as your best memory or a valuable experience?

AC: What I valued the most is a pretty simple, but unbelievably fortunate opportunity that I had: I got to say “good morning!” to the president every day I came to work. I used to greet the president optimistically everyday, saying “Top of the morning to you, Mr. President! It’s a great day!” I didn’t want to come to work as a pessimist. I wanted to come as an optimist. I had so much joy from trying to be contagious with joy to the president and to people who work in the White House. I also recognized the burdens that the president carries. We tend not to think about the burden he carries, but it comes from the Constitution. The president has made an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and the burden comes from when the president realizes he cannot keep his oath without sometimes making sacrifices that the president would never invite on anybody. Being able to witness a president acknowledge that burden, accept it, and then have to live with the consequences was probably the most revealing aspect of what it meant to help a president build his job and carry a burden that is indescribable with optimism, pride, and leadership because he has to inspire and welcome others who have also taken this oath. 

NB: Looking back toward before you even worked in the White House, what inspired your interest in politics?

AC: I am an engineer by training. Many would say if you’re an engineer and a politician, you’re an oxymoron. But I grew up in a family where “politics” wasn’t a dirty word. My grandmother was a very well-educated-for-her-day militant suffragette. She used to say “the most important word in the Constitution is the very first word: we.” It’s our government and we all have a responsibility, and invitation, to participate. She expected us to accept the invitation, so I never thought that, if I was an engineer, I could never be in politics. What I would say to any Dartmouth student interested in politics is “grab it and do it.” The rug of American politics used to have more rug than fringe. Today, the rug seems to have little rug and a lot of fringe. That’s because people don’t have the courage to stand on the rug and talk about what’s going on. I would like to see that rug expanded, knowing that the fringe is also valuable because it pushes us to see things we wouldn’t otherwise.

NB: On September 11, 2001, you were the one who whispered in President Bush’s ear, when he was in a classroom in Florida, that there had been a terrorist attack. It’s hard to believe anyone but you could know what that was like. How did you handle such a high-stress, world-changing situation?

AC: The president had been told before he walked into the classroom that it appears a small plane has crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I very quickly learned that it was not a small plane; it was a commercial jetliner. And, I learned that a second plane hit another tower. Knowing this, I stood at the door and I performed a test that Chiefs of Staff have to perform everyday: I asked myself “does the president need to know?” The answer was easy: yes. I went into the room and I whispered in his ear: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” I witnessed the President digest what I said to him and was pleased he did nothing to introduce fear to those second graders. That day changed the world. It certainly changed me.