Won’t You Shut Up, Bill Daley?

In his White House memoir, POTUS Speaks, former Clinton speech writer Michael Waldman writes admiringly of Gore campaign Chairman Bill Daley:

Daley was not overawed by the White House. His first day on the job [as NAFTA czar], I was told, a young staff member was showing him around. As they walked past the press briefing room, the aide announced, “That’s the pressroom. It used to be the pool.” Daley smiled. “I know. I used to swim there.”

Daley is the son of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, last of the big-time Democratic political bosses. Everybody loves him. He is reputed to be very smart–smarter, for instance, than his brother Richie, current mayor of Chicago. According to an article in the Sept. 18 Fortune by Jeffrey Birnbaum, Daley stands a good chance of becoming chief of staff in a Gore administration. He’d probably perform the job well, and he’d almost certainly be a better choice than the other name Birnbaum floated, James Johnson. (Johnson is a slick Washington operator who previously ran Fannie Mae, the Kennedy Center, and, somewhat more disastrously, Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. Click here to read Matthew Cooper’s 1997 Slate piece on how Johnson blended the first and second of these three roles.)

So: Two cheers for Bill Daley. Reading John Harris’ sharply critical assessment of Gore’s management style in the Oct. 29 Washington Post, however, Chatterbox was taken aback by what Daley had to say:

Bill Daley believes so strongly that Gore should be the next president that he quit his job as commerce secretary to help him do it. But, after five months serving as his campaign chairman, Daley believes something else: As a manager, Gore is in for some surprises if he wins.Gore, Daley said in an interview in his Nashville office, believes that most problems can be solved through more deliberate analysis or better procedures; the reality of the Oval Office, in Daley’s view, is a constant succession of crises that demand speed, improvisation, intuition. They require a president to let go of most problems in order to commit himself fully to a few urgent ones.“One of the challenges he will face is to keep from getting too engaged,” said Daley. “I think that will be hard for him. If decisions are being made in his name, that’s a big deal for him.”He would also insist on his own analysis of problems. “It would be rare for someone to walk into a President Gore and say, ‘You need to do this right away,’ and have him do it,” Daley said.

Now, it’s true that George W. Bush is so divorced from the details of any political decision as to call into question his fundamental qualification to be president. Gore’s deep engagement with the issues is much more reassuring. Perhaps that’s what Daley meant to convey. Still, it’s widely understood that Gore does have a somewhat maddening tendency to immerse himself in small-bore details of sometimes questionable relevance. Why would Gore’s own campaign manager wish to point this out one week before a very close election?

One possible explanation is that Daley suspects Gore’s going to lose and is distancing himself, for either psychological or professional reasons. “Gore is dead meat” has certainly been the theme of campaign press coverage during the past few days (see, for example, Maureen Dowd’s Oct. 29 column) though no one is offering any convincing justification for this seemingly rash conclusion.

Another possibility is that Gore’s tendency to sweat over stupid stuff–Harris offers the example of an all-nighter Gore pulled to write a pompous commencement speech for MIT–is so obvious (and, perhaps, so maddening) that Daley can’t in good conscience pretend that it isn’t a problem. Certainly one would want any future chief of staff in the Gore administration to be thinking of ways to counter it. (One hilarious detail Harris missed is that when Gore finally gave that commencement address, MIT students distributed bingo boards and crossed out Gore buzzwords as he uttered them.) Though perhaps Daley needn’t advertise this particular qualification for the chief of staff job at this particular moment.

A final possibility is that Daley is just full of himself. OK, you swam in the White House! You want to swim there again? Then put a sock in it!