The Boys Under the Bus
In Wednesday's New York Times, Maureen Dowd writes that the way the Greg Craig "matter was handled sent a chill through some Obama supporters." Craig, the White House counsel, is just the latest Obama loyalist to be sacrificed for political expediency. Lloyd Grove tallies up the body count so far.
Presidents of the United States—all presidents—tend to adopt a clinically utilitarian view of the people who serve them. They burn through their staffs like rocket fuel, a White House observer once noted. In his readiness to discard underlings who are no longer useful to him, or otherwise have passed their sell-by dates, Barack Obama is no different from his predecessors. But he’s arguably more unsentimental than most about the unpleasant necessity of throwing friends and allies under the bus.
• Steve Clemons: The Assassination of Greg CraigAs Jacob Weisberg wrote recently in Slate, “Obama has a healthy disdain for the overrated virtue of political loyalty… If you're useful, you can hang around with him. If you start to look like a liability, enjoy your time with the wolves…The president is catlike also in his lack of evident affection for the people who take care of him.” Certainly he’s no Bill Clinton—whose eyes were apt to well up while his lower lip trembled, occasionally punctuated by a consoling hug, as he did what had to be done.
Defenestrated White House Counsel Gregory Craig—a crucial early supporter of Obama’s long-shot candidacy, who became a lightning rod for critics of White House efforts to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—is only the latest loyalist to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. He surely won’t be the last.
Herewith, The Daily Beast’s official scorecard of the body count so far:
The 64-year-old Craig was a Washington wise man, having enjoyed a stellar career in politics, policy, and the law before President Obama tapped him to be his top legal adviser in the White House. A partner at the powerhouse firm of Williams & Connolly, Craig had been a trusted aide and confidante of Sen. Ted Kennedy, a top policymaker in Bill Clinton’s State Department and ultimately Clinton’s impeachment lawyer before he became enthralled by the freshman senator from Illinois. Craig’s early support lent Obama’s presidential ambition a degree of Washington street cred that it might otherwise have lacked. Indeed, Craig’s support was one of the factors that led to Kennedy’s game-changing endorsement. On Friday—after months of toxic leaks to the press from anonymous White House aides questioning Craig’s handling of politically sensitive Guantanamo Bay matters, among others—he was forced to resign in humiliating fashion. The president, on his way to Asia, issued an anodyne statement of thanks and appreciation, but the damage to Craig’s reputation was done.
A close friend of the president’s from Harvard Law School, Butts was at least afforded a soft landing when she was removed Nov. 6 as deputy White House counsel—a week before Greg Craig’s forced resignation. Butts was named to the wordy post of “senior adviser in the office of the chief executive officer at the Millennium Challenge Corporation”—compared to the West Wing, a governmental backwater—with the vague mission of “combating global poverty.”
JAMES A. JOHNSON
When he was at the height of his power in the mid-1990s, former Democratic political operative and Walter Mondale aide Jim Johnson was nicknamed “Chairman of the Universe.” He simultaneously ran the Brookings Institution, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the home mortgage behemoth Fannie Mae. He was a pillar of the Washington establishment who had gotten rich in business while becoming a generous philanthropist. Johnson was frequently touted as a potential Treasury secretary in a future Democratic administration—probably the Obama administration. It looked like all-systems-go in June 2008 when the freshly victorious candidate promptly tapped his loyal supporter to lead his vice-presidential vetting team—the sensitive, all-important task of assessing prospective running mates. And then, just as quickly—after press reports of low-interest personal loans Johnson had obtained as a friend of embattled Countrywide mortgage chief Angelo Mozilo—Obama kicked him to the curb.
The former Senate Majority Leader—who lost his 2004 reelection bid in South Dakota—was national co-chairman of the Obama campaign, a key policy adviser, especially on health-care reform, and a savvy surrogate on the Sunday talk shows. When Obama’s nomination of Daschle to be secretary of Health and Human Services encountered stormy weather over his nonpayment of income taxes—and acceptance of free chauffeured limousine services, embarrassingly enough—nobody blamed the president for pulling the plug. (Daschle paid back many of the taxes, but reports suggested others remain unpaid, and a spokesperson suggested the acceptance of the free limo service was “naïve.) Some old Washington hands were rattled by Obama’s cold-eyed bluntness. “I screwed up,” the president said about the abortive nomination, over and over, in a series of television interviews on the day that Daschle was forced to withdraw.
Along with Daschle’s dashed nomination, the president forced the withdrawal of business consultant Nancy Killefer, a McKinsey & Co. executive whom he had picked, with great fanfare, to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget while also filling the brand new role of chief performance officer in the White House. “Today was an embarrassment for us,” Obama told NBC after Killefer acknowledged a $946.69 tax lien from the District of Columbia government. It didn’t matter that she had resolved the problem years earlier; she was toast.
A Yale-educated lawyer and environmental activist, as well as an ardent Obama campaign supporter, Jones was given the nominally low-profile job of White House special adviser on "green" jobs. But some intemperate statements from his past (such as “Republicans are assholes”) and ill-advised associations from his flirtation with radical politics (such as his apparent sympathy with 9/11 conspiracy theorists) provoked withering attacks on Jones and Obama from Fox News star Glenn Beck and a host of Republican office-holders. The White House let Jones fend for himself; in September he was finally forced out of his job, complaining in his resignation letter of “a vicious smear campaign against me.”
STEVE RATTNER & RICK WAGONER
After Obama tapped Steve Rattner to restructure the foundering automobile industry in February, the New York financier and Democratic fundraiser quickly shook up General Motors and Chrysler, and helped orchestrate the resignation of GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner as that company coped with bankruptcy proceedings. With Rattner’s goals as car czar largely achieved, he reportedly had hoped to secure other Washington assignments. But the president let him leave under a cloud in July when New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was reported to be pursuing a civil investigation into the public pension fund management business of Rattner’s Quadrangle Group.
Although he had no prior relationship with the president—and, indeed, had thought it prudent to assert his independence from the Obama White House—state Senator Creigh Deeds was the 2009 Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia. The current governor, Tim Kaine, was a close friend of the president and his hand-picked chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And yet, as Deeds’ campaign started to falter, Obama’s top aides in the White House were not reluctant to trash him—to the contrary, they unloaded to The Washington Post, two weeks before the Nov. 4 election, about all the mistakes Deeds had made in the race, and how Obama couldn’t and shouldn’t be blamed for Deeds’ inevitable defeat.
Even the many detractors of New York’s embattled governor were surprised when the president’s operatives— led by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and political director Patrick Gaspard—actively attempted to push David Paterson to drop out of next year’s election campaign. They were aghast that anonymous “administration officials” boasted about their efforts in a front-page story in The New York Times. “Butt out,” Harlem Rep. Charlie Rangel advised the Obama White House. So far Paterson has steadfastly refused to assume the presidentially approved position, under the bus.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI & ROBERT MALLEY
Zbigniew Brzezinski—Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser and a gray eminence in the foreign-policy establishment—gave a big and early lift to Obama’s candidacy with his August 2007 endorsement. But after pro-Israel activists howled that Zbig’s presence raised troubling questions about Obama’s commitment to the Jewish state, the candidate dropped him like a hot falafel and trotted out his senior Middle East adviser, former ambassador Dennis Ross, to claim: “Brzezinski is not an adviser to the campaign.” Zbig later got his revenge, telling The Daily Beast that Obama and his “lousy staff work” badly botched his announcement of scrapping the Bush administration’s missile-defense program.
In May 2008, candidate Obama sacked foreign-policy adviser Robert Malley, a Middle East expert, after he disclosed that he’d met with the militant Palestinian group Hamas in his non-campaign-related work for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think thank. A campaign spokesman promptly declared him a non-person: “He has no formal role in the campaign and he will not play any role in the future.”
GENERAL DAVID MCKIERNAN
In May, the president had Secretary of Defense Robert Gates abruptly fire David McKiernan, the Army’s top general in Afghanistan. The ostensible reason was that McKiernan was too cautious and conventional a thinker about how to bring stability to the war-torn, corruption-plagued country that Obama had previously announced was crucial to America’s security. Now that McKiernan’s replacement—Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal—has shown himself to be anything but cautious and conventional (even preempting announced White House policy by publicly demanding tens of thousands of additional troops), there are rumblings that McChrystal is likely to be next.
New Mexico’s governor provoked the enduring anger of Hillary and Bill Clinton—from whom he had received two coveted jobs, U.N. ambassador and Energy secretary—when he endorsed Obama in March 2008. Obama rewarded Richardson, a former presidential campaign rival, by nominating him to be Commerce secretary, and then threw him under the bus a month later amid reports of a federal grand jury investigation into New Mexico state contractors and their donations to Richardson’s political action committee. More than a year has passed since then, and no indictment has been forthcoming. Richardson, who fiercely maintained that he had done nothing wrong, “has seen his political fortunes crater,” according to Politico.
JEREMIAH WRIGHT & WILLIAM AYERS
“I could no more disown Reverend Wright than I could my own white grandmother,” candidate Obama famously declared in his speech on race in Philadelphia. Yes, he could! After his Chicago pastor of 20 years persisted in making incendiary statements of the “God Damn America” variety, Obama surgically cut him loose and cast him into the outer darkness. “Whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this,” Obama said by way of explaining the final breach. “I don’t think that he showed much concern for me. More importantly, I don’t think he showed much concern for what we’re trying to do in this campaign and what we’re trying to do for the American people.”
Obama’s divorce from former Weatherman Bill Ayers, a friend, neighbor, and occasional political supporter from Chicago’s Hyde Park ‘hood, was far less painful but just as decisive.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.