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Almost Famous: Washington Staffers

Elected officials aren’t the only celebrities in Washington anymore. Their aides have ascended to the firmament—and brought new dangers with them.

Almost Famous: Washington Staffers
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If you followed the government-shutdown saga on Twitter last week, you might be forgiven for thinking the era of soft leaders and strong aides was here. In the days leading up to the standoff, President Obama and Republican bosses weren't talking to one another, but their staffers were duking it out on Twitter. On Thursday, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told his more than 53,000 followers: "What the House GOP wants is extortion not negotiation—ideological concessions that cant [sic] pass in exchange for not blowing up economy." The next day, as Obama briefed reporters at the White House, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, tweeted to his 10,000 followers: "This Iranian news should make for an interesting pivot to talking about how he won't negotiate with Congress on budget issues." On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal, usually above chronicling minor Internet fracases, posted a story on the rise of "cyber slingers"—D.C. staffers fighting Washington's shutdown war on Twitter.

 

The conventional wisdom that staffers should remain behind the scenes is obsolete. It was dead at least as far back as the Clinton era, when the rise of cable news elevated D.C. perennials to familiar talking heads and The West Wing made the underlings seem as glamorous as the politicians themselves. The new paradigm accelerated during the early Obama years, when an obsessive, up-to-the-second news cycle rose to meet the intense interest in the new administration from Web-surfing political junkies. Five years in, everyone from the senior strategist to the lowliest body man has a Twitter feed that builds her public stature and (hopefully) enhances her boss's. Washington may be shut down, but this time anyone—anyone who can stomach it, that is—has a window into the real-time partisan bickering, not just between the White House and Congress but among all of those once-anonymous staffers, too.

It used to be that the top aides who moved legislative mountains—such as Harry Hopkins and Rexford Tugwell, two of the chief architects of FDR's New Deal—did so without the expectation of fame, even Washington fame. Now top aides do their work out front. "Back in my day, the White House chief of staff had a passion for anonymity," says Ken Duberstein, who held that position in the Reagan administration. The job has grown, Duberstein says, and while power still flows from proximity to the Oval Office, it has another source: media currency. When the White House wanted to sell the American people on a Syria intervention, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made the rounds on the Sunday shows. On any given day, cable news programs are teeming with current and former Obama administration allies and Republican ur-strategists. Those not lucky enough to land a spot in the news cycle always have Twitter to make their case. Influence is not just derivative anymore; it can also be self-created.

There are obvious advantages for the celebrity staffers—the Jon Favreaus and the Reggie Loves and the Stephanie Cutters—who manage to transform high-profile political roles into successful post-administration careers. There are also perils, as in the case of Doug Band, the longtime Bill Clinton body man and the subject of a recent New Republic cover story detailing the ethically murky overlap between his business ties and the former president's global charity work. Band was the profilee, but it had implications for the political future of the Clinton dynasty—which points to a consequence of the new culture: Although the risks may be shared between the politician and his omnipresent underling, the downsides almost always fall on the boss.

 

LITTLE GUYS GET BIG

The 1999 debut of The West Wing, near the end of the Clinton administration, had a singular impact on the public's perception of life in Washington. Already, staffers such as James Carville, David Gergen, and George Stephanopoulos were well-known within the D.C. political scene, but the show gave a new dimension to the apparatchiks—the Josh Lymans and Sam Seaborns—who previously kept out of public view. "You had a much greater lumping of the power class, and principals became synonymous with operatives around them," says Mark Leibovich, who chronicled the evolution of the role of aides in This Town. Even beyond the confines of the screen, the show blurred the lines between Washington and Hollywood, hiring writers and producers who had served in key government posts, such as former Senate staffer Lawrence O'Donnell and former White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers. Later, the George W. Bush administration would have Karl Rove, Nicole Wallace, and other high-profile aides. The West Wing's depiction of young staffers (earnest, idealistic, and able to influence big decisions) inspired a whole new generation of young people to come work in Washington.

But under Clinton and Bush, only a few aides near the top of the totem pole got glitzy Style-section profiles and Sunday talk-show gigs. Politico, founded in 2007, helped lower the barrier to entry. With its mission to break every bit of news happening in the capital, no matter how trivial, the newspaper deepened the link between sources and the journalists who desperately needed them for incremental coverage. Suddenly, every staff move, intra-office squabble, and birthday cupcake had a place in Politico.

It was a dramatic increase in attention, not just for major news events but for things that previously were thought to have no news value. "I've always been surprised when you read a story about a staffer or you see them in a photo, because I've always thought to myself, 'Oh, my God, that guy might get fired.' It felt to me on the campaign that that was sort of a fireable offense," says Jake Levine, who worked on Obama's first presidential campaign and is now at Opower, an energy consultancy. But when Levine became a policy analyst in the White House energy and climate-change office, the press shop gave him permission to participate in a New York Times Magazine profile of Obama twentysomethings written by Ashley Parker. "We knew that if we just told [the writer] the way that we felt about our time in the administration and what we were doing, that would reflect well on us," he explained. And the story did make Team Obama look hip and young—like the new Camelot.

The piece wasn't just good for Obama, though. It also lifted the subjects' cache. Herbie Ziskend, the blue-eyed, 28-year-old travel aide who led Parker's profile and once handled luggage for Obama's campaign, is currently chief of staff to Arianna Huffington. Reggie Love, Obama's charismatic former body man, left for an M.B.A. at Wharton and now gives motivational speeches. And speechwriter Jon Favreau, who departed with Hollywood aspirations, now runs a political-strategy firm and writes a column for The Daily Beast. 

 

Social media further accelerated this phenomenon. At the beginning of the Obama administration, Twitter was still in its infancy. It became part of the political conversation just as relations between the White House and congressional Republicans frayed, making it an important space for the proxy debate. "What we're left with is a sort of tweet-a-thon, where staffers have new freedom to make wisecracks and pick fights or just retweet reporters' links as evidence of the other side's intransigence," says former Obama White House spokesman Reid Cherlin.

There are practical benefits here, says Ben LaBolt, a former spokesman for the Obama campaign. "There could be an accountability factor to it—it holds people's behavior more accountable and allows for more engagement between not only elected officials, but between staffers and government."

Still, tweet-a-thons are acts of public performance meant to advance political (or personal) narratives; they reward point-scoring and name-calling over policy debate. Earlier this summer, for example, Brad Dayspring, a strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suggested to his 10,000-plus followers that Justin Barasky, a press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was mentally ill. Then Barasky's boss, Matt Canter, compared Dayspring to a rabid dog. Dayspring responded by calling Barasky a stalker. Barasky returned the "stalker" epithet a day later. Politico wrote 1,800 words on the spat. In September, Dayspring ignited another media frenzy when he called Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes an "empty dress." The ensuing outcry was loud enough that GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell's tea-party challenger, Matt Bevin, denounced the comments.

UNBREAKABLE

Now it's much easier for an aide to realize Levine's fear—of becoming the story himself. Kurt Bardella, a former flack for GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, was famously undone for leaking correspondence with reporters to Leibovich and bragging about his media-wrangling efforts. In other words, he became a distraction, and Issa fired him. "I made a decision that was based more on ego and vanity than what was in the best interest of my guy," Bardella says. "The foundational question you need to ask yourself is, 'Will this help my guy or not?' And if the answer is no, don't do it." It looked like a familiar kind of Washington sin: Icarus syndrome.

Yet instead of ending his career, the mini-scandal seemed to burnish Bardella's brand. Six months later, after a round of contrition and self-abnegation, he was back with Issa—now as an adviser to the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. This summer, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine—alongside renderings of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol, with the provocative headline, "Which One Defines Washington?" In September, he started his own PR firm, Endeavor Strategies, turning himself from a once-disgraced solipsist into a political super-consultant. 

If celebrity status is a minefield, it turns out that stepping on a mine doesn't always end badly. In Washington, the self-styled brands always seem to come out ahead, even after disastrous errors. As an Obama campaign adviser in 2008, Samantha Power referred to Hillary Rodham Clinton as a "monster." Power went underground for a little while and emerged with a senior post on the National Security Council. Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen criticized Ann Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign for "never working a day in her life." It was bad enough that the Obama campaign had to publicly declare its disagreement with her remarks—but not so bad that she was invited to be on Meet The Press the following Sunday. 

As for Bardella, his Icarus moment was real, but so too was his rehabilitation. "You ask yourself, how was it that this guy was at this point that he could have this fall," says Bardella, speaking of himself in the third person over a rib eye at McCormick & Schmick's. "It's because I was doing my job. Before any of this, nobody was complaining about that. I don't apologize for doing my job the way in which we decided was most effective to get the job done."

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