Ed Henry is a CNN White House correspondent.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A few weeks ago, I ran into Dan Bartlett on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, and the former presidential counselor looked like the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders.
Former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett is more open now that he has left the White House.
He was tanned and rested from a long summer vacation, thrilled to be spending more time with his family and eager to start reaping the greener pastures of the private sector after leaving the White House in July.
The newly liberated Bartlett casually chatted about a range of subjects, unburdened by staff meetings and press calls, just standing near a Starbucks shooting the breeze. But when I steered the conversation to questions about President Bush's search for a new attorney general -- which was then in the final stages -- Bartlett politely clammed up.
"I'm still on message," he said, half-jokingly, of course.
Well, imagine my surprise this week to find the veil of secrecy is finally starting to be lifted. Bartlett is now on the paid lecture circuit -- earning $10,000-$30,000 per speech depending on the audience and location -- and the big dough has loosened his lips.
Bartlett's speaking agent, Leading Authorities, posted video of one recent speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce online to drum up business. But the video is also providing rare insights into key players like Vice President Cheney.
Bartlett talks about the 2000 Republican National Convention, when he and Ari Fleischer, who later became the White House press secretary, formulated a plan to sit down with Dick and Lynne Cheney to warn them that bringing their lesbian daughter, Mary, on the campaign trail would invite press scrutiny.
It was a delicate assignment, so Bartlett and Fleischer practiced the night before and decided Fleischer would break the ice when they met with the Cheneys during a motorcade ride.
"Ari was supposed to start, and Ari is like reading the newspaper," Bartlett told his audience to laughter. "I'd keep looking at Ari and Ari's not looking back."
So Bartlett plunged ahead, telling the Cheneys in the back of the car: "Just want you to know the press is going to really focus on this. They're going to maybe intrude more into their lives than you would be prepared -- and Mrs. Cheney is there too -- and darts just shooting through me left and right."
The future vice president finally broke the silence. "We won't be talking about my daughter," Cheney said, according to Bartlett. So the staffer said, "Okaaay, thank you very much."
Then there was President Bush's first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001 in Slovenia, when they privately sparred over -- of all things -- U.S. chicken imports to Russia.
"You're only sending us chickens from the bad chicken plants," Putin railed at Bush, according to Bartlett. "And Americans are getting all the good chicken plants."
Bartlett noted that Putin repeatedly referred to "George" in the conversation. "And when he gets really kind of uppity he would always, like, would pointedly say, 'George,' " Bartlett said.
Bush was stunned by Putin's wrong information, according to Bartlett, who then showed his audience a pretty good impersonation of Bush.
"He's kind of like what the hell is he talking about?" recalled Bartlett. " 'Vladimir, if you want to come over to America, we can go to every chicken plant in America and eat as many chickens as you want! Let's go now!" '
Bartlett said he used the anecdote to show how complex the U.S.-Russian relationship is now, adding that the Bush-Putin summits got more "bizarre" by the year.
These comments, of course, will only make the next Bush-Putin meeting that much more interesting. E-mail to a friend