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Robert McCarthy: Former White House gatekeeper has some advice to offer

Just about everyone of a certain age will forever associate Andy Card with the iconic photograph taken in Sarasota, Fla., on Sept. 11, 2001.

Chief of staff to President George W. Bush, Card had just learned that a second jetliner had crashed into the World Trade Center. As the president was reading to children at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, the camera caught Card whispering in the ear of the commander-in-chief: “A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

Card related that story before various groups a few days ago during a two-day visit to Buffalo at the invitation of GOP activist Brian Rusk of Amherst. A Boston-area native and veteran Washington hand, Card clearly enjoyed renewing Buffalo acquaintances (as a young engineer in the early 1970s he worked on the original Rich Stadium project) and offering his views.

Also a former secretary of transportation under President George H.W. Bush, Card might have faded into history following his recent retirement as president of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce University. But a world colored by the unorthodoxy of Donald Trump won’t let that happen. Card’s ability to boil down complicated matters – maybe the cardinal virtue of a presidential chief of staff – has thrust him regularly before MSNBC cameras for commentary on the ways of Washington.

“It is a tough job,” Card told the Politics Column during his Buffalo visit. “One of the burdens is that the chief of staff knows more than the president. It sounds arrogant to say, but it’s just a reality, because so many people are trying to get the president involved in everything.

“One of the toughest questions is: Does the president need to know?” he continued. “Sometimes the answer is absolutely, sometimes it’s no, not at all, and sometimes it’s maybe. If you get it wrong, there’s a consequence. If you tell him something he didn’t need to know and he worries about it, you’ve wasted his time.”

A couple of recent developments combined to thrust Card and others who have held the job into the national spotlight. First, author Chris Whipple’s new book, “The Gatekeepers,” profiles 17 men assigned a post that traces its origin to Sherman Adams in the Eisenhower White House.

Second, Whipple’s book arrived just as President Trump was ushering Reince Priebus out the door and beginning to rely on Gen. John Kelly. Now the newest gatekeeper may face a tougher assignment than all of his predecessors as he attempts to rein in history’s most unpredictable Oval Office occupant.

Card recognizes that the Kelly appointment is crucial. He sees an experienced Washington hand who knows how to execute the chain of command, even if most of the time Trump goes his own way.

“I’ve seen a significant improvement in discipline in the White House under General Kelly,” he said, “and it’s significantly visible from the chief of staff down. We’re still waiting to see if there’s discipline from the chief of staff up.”

Card speaks in the diplomatic tongue of a Washington veteran. He’s polished and disciplined. It’s what you expect from a presidential chief of staff.

But he also seeks to make his point. Kelly, he says, has the courage to speak truth to power. And that’s a top requirement of the job.

“He also understands discretion,” he said. “He knows how to keep a secret and how to build morale. I suspect we don’t know what kind of truth he has spoken to what power.”

The former chief recognizes that Kelly must help, guide and even confront a president who lacks essential government experience. He hopes Trump will eventually ascend the learning curve.

But so far, he said, the president lacks the discipline to “taste your words before you spit them out because there is impact in your words.”

“He doesn’t spit them out, he usually tweets them out,” Card adds. “So maybe he should lick his thumb before he hits the send button.”

It’s obvious Card has succeeded for his ability to cut through the clutter, and speak truth to power. It’s also obvious he has not lost his touch.

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