WASHINGTON — They were fiercely loyal, unfailingly disciplined and, as a unit, offered the president a comforting touchstone from his home state.
Now, Team Texas is moving ever closer to extinction. The already thinning cadre of advisers who followed George W. Bush from Austin to Washington is unraveling even further, with Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove heading toward the door.
Although Texans are still dotted throughout the administration, most of the influential Lone Star transplants who've worked at Bush's side since his days as Texas governor either have left town or removed themselves from day-to-day influence at the White House.
Gonzales, a steadfast loyalist who served as Bush's counsel in the governor's office, announced his resignation as attorney general Monday after enduring a months-long uproar over his stewardship of the Justice Department. Rove, the architect of Bush's victorious presidential campaigns, will leave at the end of the week.
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They join a parade of other departed Bush insiders from Texas, including White House adviser Dan Bartlett, former Press Secretary Scott McClellan, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Joe Allbaugh and White House lawyer Harriet Miers, who Bush briefly nominated to the Supreme Court before a conservative backlash forced him to withdraw the nomination.
Karen Hughes, one of Bush's most trusted advisers in Austin and during the early days at the White House, remains in town but is focused on her current duties as a top State Department official charged with bolstering the U.S. image abroad.
Three other vintage Bushites are still in Washington but, like Hughes, they're largely focused on their own turf: Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, the author of Bush's education initiatives in Austin; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, Bush's former neighbor in Dallas; and former Bush college roommate Clay Johnson, who serves as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The departures are to be expected toward the end of a second term. For the most part, many of Bush's original teammates chose to stay on long past the traditional tenure in a city known for burnout and destroyed families.
"The only surprise is not that any of the Texans have left but that they stayed so long," said Mark McKinnon, a former Bush media consultant who's now the vice chairman of Public Strategies of Austin.
The longevity of many Texas transplants — particularly those who remained at Bush's side deep into his second term — in many ways reflects the mutual loyalty that bonded the former Texas governor and those who joined him at the outset of his political career in the mid-1990s.
Rove, Hughes and Allbaugh, who was Bush's chief of staff in the state capital, formed what was known as the "iron triangle" during the Austin era. Gonzales not only was Bush's legal adviser but also his appointee as Texas secretary of state and a state Supreme Court justice. McClellan, who comes from an Austin political family, was a press aide during Bush's first run for president, in 2000.
"They've been traveling with this guy for a long time," said Texas journalist Bill Minutaglio, who's authored biographies on Bush and Gonzales. "There's a strong personal connection."
To a person, Minutaglio said, pioneer members of the Bush team shared the president's conservative visions, liked and admired him personally and, as Gonzales noted in his resignation statement Monday, credited him with their personal ascents.
In turn, Bush knew that he could count on his fellow Texans to be tight-lipped and loyal, traits that enhanced the administration's reputation as one of the most leak-proof and internally disciplined in years. Bush insisted on loyalty, Minutaglio said, in part because of insiders who he felt had been disloyal to his president father.
After arriving in Washington in January 2001, Bush became even more dependent on a home-state inner circle that long ago had grown familiar with his style and beliefs.
"These were his pals," Minutaglio said. "Bush felt uncomfortable around policy wonks and think tanks. They made him feel very comfortable; they understood him. They got George W. Bush at a Texas level."
But for some of those who followed Bush into the turmoil of his second term, the cost came high. Gonzales, who came to town amid talk of possibly becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee, instead will leave with a battered reputation. Rove likewise was under scrutiny by Congress on several fronts after earning a reputation as the nation's foremost political craftsman.
The steady parade of Texas departures means that Bush, burdened by low approval ratings because of the Iraq war and other issues, largely will be dependent on an evolving new team as he moves into his final year and a half in office.