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So, What’s Not to Like About Amiable Advisor?

Times Staff Writer

President Bush’s new national security advisor has made a career out of being the perfect right-hand man to a series of powerful Washington conservatives.

Now the self-effacing Stephen J. Hadley, often described as one of the nicest guys in Washington, is doing one of toughest jobs in the U.S. government.

Like John R. Bolton, Hadley is a Yale-trained lawyer known for his tremendous energy and hawkish credentials, and as a conservative loyalist with close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney. But unlike Bolton, whose nomination as U.N. ambassador prompted bitter opposition from officials who had worked with him inside the Bush administration, no one in Washington seems to have a nasty word to say about Hadley -- even off the record.

Some even ask: Is Hadley too nice?

The national security advisor’s job -- which Hadley took in January, succeeding Condoleezza Rice -- is to make sure the president gets the best possible information, intelligence and analysis on which to base decisions and then ensure they are carried out. Previous national security advisors sometimes have had to bring feuding, turf-grabbing or end-running Cabinet officials into line.

As the administration grapples with the challenges posed by the Iraqi insurgency, tensions with Iran and North Korea, as well as a legacy of failed intelligence, the need for a national security advisor to make sure all views are heard is acute.

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But administration critics worry that Hadley could be too deferential to his former bosses -- Rice, now secretary of State, and Cheney -- to keep them from dominating all decision-making.

Hadley, 58, is one of the eight “Vulcans,” the self-named team of conservatives, including Cheney and Rice, who advised Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign and have influenced U.S. foreign policy since. Hadley’s ties with administration hawks date to 1972, when he arrived in Washington as a young naval officer and worked in the Pentagon with Paul D. Wolfowitz, now director of the World Bank.

Is it possible for a person to hold key positions in Washington’s toughest bureaucracies for 33 years and have no enemies?

“It’s true. I don’t believe he’s made an enemy,” said Leslie H. Gelb, a former State Department and Defense Department official and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Gelb, who has worked under Democrats and Republicans, has known Hadley since the mid-1970s and said that he had never heard him raise his voice, even in the heat of Cold War arguments.

“He’s intellectually forceful without being rhetorically forceful,” Gelb said. After listening to what others have to say, Hadley returns to his points, Gelb added. “He’s a guy who conveys flexibility without being flexible.”

Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, for whom Hadley worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, said: “Steve Hadley is one of the world’s nicest guys.” Scowcroft, who has sometimes been critical of the current president’s foreign policy, describes Hadley as smart, a gentleman, “a devotee of the vice president” and “integrity personified.”

Mitchell B. Reiss, the former State Department director of policy planning, says Hadley is “a very, very decent guy. Not that he tries to please everyone. Steve has very firm convictions, but he expresses them in a way that doesn’t insult those who disagree with him.”

Two of Hadley’s aides said they had never seen him lose his temper -- or even raise his voice.

“I do not know anybody who does not like Steve Hadley,” said Nixon Center President Dmitri K. Simes, a Republican who has been highly critical of the Bush administration’s neoconservative policies. “He’s very competent. He has his own opinions, but he always was prepared to be fair to the opinions of others.”

W. Clark McFadden II said his friend and former tennis partner -- Hadley’s tennis game became a casualty of his job -- was so nice that “you tend to go out of your way not to impose on him. People recognize what a load he’s carrying, and refrain.”

Inside and outside the White House, Hadley has made a point of keeping a low profile.

Until recently, some White House staffers did not even know who he was. Neither did the security team at the tiny airport in Waco, Texas, which last year made Hadley, then deputy national security advisor, take off his shoes for inspection before allowing him to board the plane for the commercial flight home from Bush’s ranch.

Hadley is described as deeply religious but in a quiet way.

A few years ago, Hadley became friends with Amy Dickinson -- who now has a syndicated advice column, “Ask Amy” -- when they were both in confirmation classes at the Episcopal church he attended in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. In contrast to some other Washington power players who were also active in the church, Dickinson said, she had no idea how important Hadley was until she read about his appointment in the newspaper.

Friends assert that Hadley plays the piano well, but that he never mentions it because Rice, his alter ego, is known as a classical pianist. When asked, he says he played in his youth but no longer does. Hadley, a Rachmaninoff fan, and his wife, an opera buff, are often seen at Kennedy Center performances with Rice.

Hadley is not often in the Washington dinner party circuit. “My wife’s and my view of a successful Saturday night is to have dinner with our children,” he said in a recent interview.

Then, he spoke about how the real public servants are the spouses of public officials, whose workloads are doubled. Hadley’s wife is a Justice Department attorney; they have two daughters, ages 16 and 18.

Wearing horn-rimmed glasses and looking like the top corporate lawyer he once was, Hadley blushed when asked whether it was true that he had no enemies.

“This is an impossible question,” Hadley said, laughing in embarrassment. “I’ve had a great time. And I’ve been privileged to work with a remarkable bunch of people.”

He said years of debate among “foreign policy types” of his generation had forged mutual respect among Democrats and Republicans that had “given some continuity to our foreign policy over decades, in the Cold War period.”

Some say Hadley has the gift of being so focused on problem-solving that he seems unaware of or unaffected by political and ideological undercurrents.

He became national security advisor at an especially partisan moment in U.S. foreign policy.

During Bush’s first term, Hadley was part of the team whose job it was to convince the American public of the need for the Iraq war.

Later, he took the blame for allowing the erroneous claim that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger to be included in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address despite warnings from the CIA that the intelligence was unreliable. Many thought Hadley was the loyal soldier taking the fall for Rice, who was his boss at the time.

But Ivo H. Daalder, a Brookings Institution scholar who opposed the Iraq war, said the real failure of Hadley and Rice in their National Security Council roles was allowing the Pentagon to oversee the planning for postwar Iraq stabilization.

“This is a humongous NSC failure, and Hadley and Rice were directly responsible,” Daalder said.

Since taking over as national security advisor, Hadley briefs the president each morning.

Hadley said: “The president is very, very smart .... He can listen to a set of facts, assimilate it, figure out which is the really important fact and pull on that fact, quicker, faster, better than almost anyone I’ve ever seen.... It’s very important that you get him good information, because he remembers it and uses it, and you don’t want to get a bad fact into his head.”

Like many national security advisors before him, Hadley said that what a president wanted was an “honest broker” who would present Cabinet secretaries’ views in a fair and balanced way and then make sure decisions were carried out.

Hadley discounted the perception that the national security advisor controlled access to the president and thus tended to have disproportionate influence.

He said people underestimated the extent to which the president set the framework for the debate preceding decision-making, rather than choosing among views presented by his advisors.

“He sets the direction,” Hadley said. “He has his own ideas and principles that come out of his experience and his faith and his character. Many times, yes, he takes advice from his senior advisors but the course we plot is really his own.”

James Mann, author of “Rise of the Vulcans,” a book about Bush’s war Cabinet, said every national security advisor had promised to be an honest broker, but none entirely achieved it.

History shows that “even the most self-effacing manages to assert himself once in a while,” Mann said. “Even though there seem to be fewer fights between State and Defense [departments] now, there are bound to be some, and he’s going to be the main guy advising Bush on how to reconcile these fights.”

The balance of power in the second Bush term has so shifted toward Rice’s State Department that “Hadley goes to staff meetings [Rice] has at State -- something that hasn’t happened since at least the mid-1980s,” said Daalder of the Brookings Institution. He said Hadley wouldn’t be able to act as an honest broker “because he’s seen as being subservient to one of the players.”

Several others raised similar concerns but refused to speak for attribution either because they said they liked Hadley too much to appear to be publicly criticizing him, or because they feared political or professional retribution.

Many questioned whether Hadley would take on the 800-pound gorillas surrounding Bush: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice.

True to form, Hadley listened to the criticism and, like a lawyer summing up his case to the jury, replied without a trace of bristle.

“Those 800-pound gorillas -- Rumsfeld, Cheney and Dr. Rice -- one of their great strengths is that they are great supporters of the president and great supporters of the principle that it is the president who was elected to make decisions for this country.

“As long as I run a process by which issues can get to the president, and they all have their say, I don’t have to take them on.”

Besides, he says: “I work for the 2,000-pound gorilla.”

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Times staff writer Doyle McManus in Washington contributed to this report.


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