Years before President George W. Bush ’68 appointed Joshua Bolten to the top White House position, chief of staff, on Tuesday, Bolten was a Yalie — if only for a semester.
A decade before Bush appointed Bolten to his previous post as director of the Office of Management and Budget, Bolten taught a semester of international trade at the Yale Law School during the 1993 spring semester alongside Harold Koh, the current Law School dean. Koh, a longtime friend of Bolten’s, said the appointment — which followed the resignation of Bush’s current chief of staff, Andrew Card, on Tuesday — will lighten up a White House stressed by this past year’s burdens. But some Yalies expressed reservations about the appointment, citing concerns about Bolten’s work in an administration that has frequently been criticized for its budgetary decisions.
Koh described Bolten as an innovative and enthusiastic teacher.
“He got along incredibly well with his students, worked incredibly hard with his teaching, took them out for pizza,” Koh said. “He’s a very amusing guy.”
Koh said Bolten “really loved his experience,” adding that he often rode to New Haven on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“At the very end of the semester, the students gave him a Yale sweatshirt and a Yale baseball hat, and he taught the last class wearing both,” Koh said. “He seemed very pleased to have them.”
Bush echoed Koh’s thoughts during a Tuesday press conference announcing the staffing switch.
“He’s a man of candor and humor and directness who’s comfortable with responsibility and knows how to lead,” Bush said. “Josh is a creative policy thinker. He’s an expert on the budget and our economy. He’s respected by members of Congress from both parties; he’s a strong advocate for effective, accountable management in the federal government.”
But Ted Fertik ’07 said he thinks it is unsurprising that Bush brought in someone who has kept a low public profile, and he said he is not impressed with Bolten’s background.
“His having directed the budget for this administration does not inspire confidence,” Fertik said. “This administration has plunged us into higher debt.”
Yale diplomat-in-residence Charles Hill said Card’s resignation did not come as a surprise, since he had served for nearly one and a half terms as chief of staff, but the timing of the resignation suggests the Bush administration felt pressure to make a change.
“It really wears you down, more so than a cabinet job, more so than [being] secretary of state or secretary of defense,” Hill said. “Anybody in that kind of job — and Andy Card was one of them — really shouldn’t be there for more than one term, so it was a natural thing for him to go. I think, unfortunately, in terms of public relations, the press and other political figures began to call for change in the White House, so this looks like it’s a case of being forced out, but I think it’s a perfectly necessary thing to do.”
Koh said he thinks Bolten’s personality, which he said endeared Bolten to his students at Yale, makes him a valuable person to have in a pivotal position.
“I think he’s someone who can defuse tense situations with a joke or some self-deprecatory comment,” Koh said.
Although Koh served in the Clinton administration, he said he had no problem remaining close with Bolten, who he said does not strike him as a conservative ideologue. He also said that in his new position, Bolten is the “eye of the storm, the funnel through which everything flows,” since he controls access to the president and will likely have significant influence on White House policy.
“I don’t consider him a movement conservative,” Koh said. “I think he’s a pragmatic, Bush-41 kind of Republican working in a Bush-43 White House.”
Aside from his personality, Bolten’s colleagues said he is a natural choice for the position given his former work with politics. Previously, he served as a legal advisor to the State Department General Finance Committee, as general counsel to the U.S. Trade Representative, and in other positions in the administration. Koh recalled that in 1996, Bolton began his rise to the top of the White House by traveling to Texas to becoming one of the first advisers on Bush’s young presidential campaign.
Hill said he expects change from the president.
“I expect to see the White House being a little bit quicker off the mark than it has been in the last year or so,” he said. “It’s a position that determines what ideas and what papers and what people come before the president, and it’s also a position that is supposed to be able to foresee problems coming down the line, and also be able to smell problems that are not discernible to other people. … It’s really the centerpiece of the whole White House operation.”
But Yale College Democrats President Brendan Gants ’07 said he thinks Bolten’s previous work with the Bush administration is a sign that his appointment does not mark a positive change for the country.
“Just changing your chief of staff doesn’t change the direction of the presidency,” he said. “The president needs people who are willing to stand up to him when what he is doing is not in the best interest of the country. I don’t think Bolten fits that bill.”
Card, who was known to remain at the White House from 5:30 a.m. to the wee hours of the night and had served since Bush’s election, has announced no plans for his retirement.
But Koh said Bolten may have future plans for Yale.
“A couple weeks ago I spoke with him, and I asked him if when he was done with his government service, if he would like to come back down and lecture to our students about his experience in the government,” Koh said. “He said he’d be delighted.”
The White House did not return requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.