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.

President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Press Secretary Jay Carney, Director of Communications Dan Pfeiffer, and Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, during the Nuclear Security Summit at the Coex Center in Seoul, Republic of Korea, March 27, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
National Journal
Lucia Graves and Marin Cogan
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Lucia Graves Marin Cogan
Oct. 3, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.




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.


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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