The Magazine

The Day the Emails Died

Bush will miss his aide Peter Wehner.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By FRED BARNES
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A unique chapter in White House history came to a conclusion last week. Call it the Wehner era, as in Peter Wehner, the director of the office of strategic initiatives. The title is misleading. Wehner ran a one-man think tank inside the White House (with a few young research assistants) that brought scholars and thinkers to talk to President Bush and that emailed ideas and information to several hundred journalists and writers and intellectuals and policy entrepreneurs. His missives became known as "Wehnergrams," but there will be no more of them. Friday, August 3, was his last day at the White House.

Wehner created his unique role in 2002 and made it an unusually influential one. His emails reflected not only the president's interests and initiatives but also Wehner's own, including matters of religious faith. Reporters and columnists, whether they liked or loathed Bush, found Wehner to be an indispensable source.

Having covered presidents going back to Gerald Ford, I've tried to think of a White House aide who came close to doing what Wehner did. And I've come up blank. Sure, there were staffers in past presidencies who kept in touch with the academic community and ones who specialized in talking to--and spinning, usually--columnists and commentators. But they had a narrow focus. Wehner had breadth, everything from monthly economic numbers to the anti-Bush ramblings of a prominent Anglican priest. His emails reached 1,100 recipients, most but nowhere near all of them folks with Republican or conservative sympathies.

Here's how Wehner described his audience to me: "Members of Congress, theologians, academics, political reporters, columnists, Sunday television talk show hosts, think tank scholars, bloggers, political activists, historians, cabinet secretaries, economists." He also emailed "pastors of churches I've attended," friends, and even "people in my Bible study."

At a reception on July 31, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten called Wehner the head, ears, lips, spleen, and heart of the president's team. His ears captured what the outside world, notably the intellectual community, was saying. His spleen? Wehner was often favored with the splenetic utterings of journalists. His heart was for explaining and defending Bush's concept of compassionate conservatism. Karl Rove added that Wehner had a spine. He never wavered.

He got in hot water at the White House only once--when he dispatched an email in 2004 that basically endorsed the so-called Pozen plan for Social Security reform. The plan would have limited growth in benefits for the well-to-do. His email was reported in the media and generated a short-lived controversy. Wehner had gotten out ahead of Bush, who months later spoke favorably of the plan.

Wehner liked to distribute good news about Iraq or the economy that had not received much press attention. A few weeks ago, he noted at the beginning of an email, "I realize that in some quarters these days pessimism is de rigueur, so at the risk of sounding out-of-step, I wanted to highlight some noteworthy economic and cultural data points from this past week."

Some of his most effective and politically mischievous emails contrasted what critics of Bush were saying now with what they'd said earlier. Al Gore was a particular victim. So were a number of columnists. And he occasionally passed along criticism of himself. After Wehner zinged a foreign policy speech by John Edwards, Joe Klein of Time wrote that Wehner had been "selling his usual brand of Kool-Aid." Wehner circulated Klein's piece with the comment: "I guess I'm the leader of the Kool-Aid Patrol. Cool. Plus, I need to do penance."

The sessions with intellectuals and academics he organized for the president were not limited to conservative scholars. In March 2006, he recruited David Kennedy of Stanford, James Ceaser of the University of Virginia, David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb for a discussion with Bush.

Wehner, 46, never flagged in his support for the war in Iraq. On the final Sunday night of his White House tenure, he checked the online edition of Monday's New York Times, spotted the pro-Iraq "surge" piece by Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack, and by shortly after midnight had sent the article to his email list. He labeled it "a significant and possibly climate-changing New York Times op-ed on Iraq." And indeed it was.

He will now join the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington as a senior fellow. In his farewell letter to Bush--who nicknamed him "Petie" and "Pedro"--Wehner said that however he and others served the president, "courage is what he has brought to us."