12.04.08 6:30 AM ET
From outside of Washington, Barack Obama's willingness to reach out to Democratic rivals and across the aisle to Republicans seems like an intentional break from the acrimonious partisanship that characterized the Bush years. But, as any student of Doris Kearns Goodwin—and who isn't, these days?—knows, the capital has a long tradition of unlikely alliances, from LBJ arm-twisting his way into becoming a civil rights pioneer to Newt Gingrich teaming up with Al Gore to combat global warming. Less high-profile partnerships have been flourishing for years; here are a few that stand to make an impact in the months to come. Our top five favorites, saving the best for last:
5. THE COLLEGE ROOMMATES: Mike Donilon, newly named chief adviser to Vice President-elect Joe Biden; Mark Salter, senior adviser to John McCain. College roommates, fast friends through their 20s ("we caroused"), and still just as close, neither Donilon nor Salter expected to wind up on opposite sides of a White House win. The two share season tickets to Georgetown University (their alma mater) basketball games but not necessarily their views on policy. Salter says they "never—or rarely—argue." "He's my friend," says Salter. "He was offered an important job and the opportunity to influence the country's progress. I'm happy for him."
"We were looking beyond the partisan divide and our eyes met," Phil Singer says of his unofficial business partner, Ron Bonjean.
4. PARTY PLANNER AND PSYCHO FIREMAN: Ron Bonjean, former top spokesman to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, former chief of staff to Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl; Phil Singer, former Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman and former spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Bonjean and Singer have this in common: They've left campaigns and the Hill to head up their own private consulting firms, now unofficially partnered. "We're dating, not married," says Singer, describing how he and Bonjean pitch clients as a "full service" team but separate companies. As neophytes to consulting, each former staffer was looking for a way to speed up acclimation to their new, label-less environment: "We were looking beyond the partisan divide and our eyes met," as Singer puts it. They are an odd couple for reasons beyond party affiliation. On the Hill, Bonjean has a reputation for gregariousness and hosting great parties. When he worked for Clinton, Singer gained a certain amount of notoriety for his, uhm, pugnacious attitude. After screaming at his Clinton colleagues (with some justification), "Fuck you and the whole fucking cabal!," Singer was welcomed back to campaign headquarters with the epigram (credited to Howard Wolfson), "When the house is on fire, it's better to have a psychotic fireman than no fireman at all." To mix first responder metaphors, Bonjean, presumably, will be playing "the good cop" in their joint venture.
3. MENTOR AND APPRENTICE: Mike McCurry, former Clinton spokesman; Nicolle Wallace, former McCain strategist and communications director in the Bush White House. Wallace says that McCurry is more than just a friend; he's a mentor. The two met working at an Internet startup "at the end of the boom and the beginning of the bust," in 2000. She quickly discovered that "his wisdom transcends his party," and once she found herself in the White House, the two would meet regularly for cocktails. "And I'd go back to work after a glass of wine, passing off his advice to Dan Bartlett as if it was mine," Wallace says. Wallace adds she has many Democratic friends, though she admits it might be easier for her than for party-line conservatives: "I guess the cat's out of the bag that I'm a rather moderate Republican." But these friendships, she says, do help a Republican cause: "You can always serve a principal better if you can articulate to them how things are going to be responded to on the other side."
2. EVERYBODY’S FAVORITE REPUBLICAN: Kevin Madden, former press secretary to House Majority Leader John Boehner, former communications director to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and former chief spokesman for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign; most Democratic operatives in town. Madden represented some of the Hill's toughest GOP attack dogs, but Washington has long noted his excellent relationships with his ideological opposites. He was recently rewarded for them by becoming the first Republican partner at the Democratic consulting firm Glover Park Group, founded by Gore and Clinton alumni. Madden says he fosters goodwill with political rivals because then "they pull the arrow right out of your back instead of twisting it." For their part, Democratic operatives cite Madden's sense of professionalism—and sense for when to stop being professional. Tracy Sefl, a former Democratic National Committee staffer, says, "I'm most fond of colleagues who fight for what they believe—which Kevin does. And I'm especially grateful for a colleague like Kevin who fights for what he believes, then clocks out, has fun, and makes people laugh."
1. WHAT HAPPENS IN HOUSTON…: Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff-designate for Obama; Mark McKinnon, former Bush ad man and McCain strategist; David Axelrod, presidential adviser-designate for Obama; Bill McInturf, Republican pollster; Matthew Dowd, former Bush strategist. This motley crew, all with major roles in recent political contests, came together as consultants drafted for the 1991 Houston mayoral race of businessman Bob Lanier. All friends still, McKinnon and Axelrod remain the closest: "There the bond developed and never broke," says McKinnon. "Although technically, neither of us live in D.C. Maybe that's why we're friends." This dream team wound up guiding Lanier to victory, a feat McKinnon still marvels at: "On paper the guy was totally unelectable." Emanuel ran opposition research—"hall of fame level," says McKinnon—and the rest of the group argued and spent Lanier's money. "Was great fun and it was a time we were all younger and most of us had more hair," says Dowd. "And the conference calls together were quite the discussion." Infighting, however, was limited, perhaps due to Lanier's instruction that the team need not argue about who would get the most credit or the biggest cut of the campaign budget: "Lanier was smoking a cigar, his size 14 cowboy boots on the desk," McKinnon remembers. "And [then he] drawled: 'Boys, just spend it till you waste it.'" There is a lesson here for Barack Obama, but I'll let Axelrod figure it out.
[Full disclosure: Tracy Sefl is one of my best friends.]
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