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The Man Who Will Always Be a Part of Pete

Bob White and Pete Wilson. The political Siamese twins now are separating.

While they’re not alike exactly, it has been a nice matchup. A comfortable fit. One way or another, it probably always will be--whether it’s White helping Wilson into a think tank or out of another quixotic presidential race.

“The longest-running two-man tag team in political history,” says Larry Thomas, an Irvine Co. vice president who once worked for the pair as a press secretary.

Very likely Thomas is right. For 28 years, White has been Wilson’s chief of staff. He’s practically the only chief of staff Wilson ever has had--as an assemblyman, mayor, senator and governor. By contrast, Ronald Reagan went through seven chiefs of staff during just 16 years in public office.

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“They’re like the classic western sidekicks. Partners, two guys on horseback,” Thomas says. “Or two guys driving cross-country on Route 66. ‘What’ll we do next?’ ‘I’ve got this idea.’ ‘Here’s how we can get there.’ ”

Two guys drawn together by a fervent passion for politics.

Nobody can predict the outcome--to White, to Wilson, to California--when White walks away voluntarily in April. He has been Wilson’s gatekeeper for nearly three decades. Virtually everything and everyone the governor sees goes through White. He’s also state government’s chief operating officer. He has recruited and hired practically every top political appointee.

Nobody--except Wilson’s wife, Gayle--comes close to White’s influence on the governor.

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And White admits, with refreshing candor: “I’ll miss the power.”

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He also admits candidly: “I’m burned out. I’ve been burned out for quite a while.”

Decades ago, fresh out of San Diego State and the Coast Guard, “I hitched my little wagon to a star,” White says. “I knew he was going to be a star. . . . It has been a grand odyssey, [but] I don’t want to do this day-to-day anymore. It’s exhausting.”

The power can be heady. Lobbyists and other favor-seekers fawn all over him on capital sidewalks and in restaurants. White knows better than anyone, however, that a chief of staff--even a best-friend sidekick--wields only power that is delegated. It can quickly dissipate. An elected boss always makes the final call.

Over the years, Wilson and White have had strong disagreements. “Extremely frank” discussions, White says. “He didn’t just tolerate it, he encouraged it.”

The two argued heatedly over Wilson’s decision in early 1995 to run for president. “I didn’t feel I had the time to put the [campaign] together,” White says. “Plus all the other obvious reasons.” Like the governor’s repeated promise not to run and the race’s potential crippling effect on his second term. “Government was my priority.”

Also, illegal immigration “wasn’t my favorite issue,” White says. And Wilson’s controversial but effective TV spot--They keep coming--"wasn’t my favorite ad.” But the governor would have been irresponsible to ignore illegal immigration, he asserts, because it was costing state taxpayers $3 billion a year. “I knew we’d be attacked,” he adds. Still, being called a racist “singes the very soul.”

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Actually, White says, “it was a bad roll of the dice” from the beginning for this administration. “The recession literally affected the governorship from Day 1. Nobody likes to cut [services]. Raising taxes was abhorrent to Pete Wilson. We’re now entering our seventh year. And I wish it were the first.”

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In one small way, this will be a new start for Wilson. His next chief of staff, deputy George Dunn, has a better rapport with legislators, even if he isn’t as gregarious as White. But Dunn’s rapport with Wilson still is evolving.

Pols wonder what the 54-year-old White is up to. He says he’s not entirely sure. He may become a corporate exec or open his own consulting shop, “telling people how to go through the [government] maze.” What is sure, he says, is that “I’ll be part of Pete Wilson. You don’t throw away 30 years.”

White will explore options for Wilson when he leaves office in January 1999. These may involve joining a think tank or creating his own foundation, as Reagan did en route to the White House. The governor wants to write a couple of books, White says. “Maybe not best-sellers--things on policy.”

“Pete Wilson has no intention of ending his [public policy] career,” White says. “And I want to be part of that, no matter what form it takes.”

If Wilson still has the presidential bug in 2000, White will help chart the race. But “I do not ever want to be a chief of staff again,” he says. Also, “this is my last government job.”

As I wrote that pledge into my notebook, White said: “Give me that and I’ll sign it.” And he did.

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