Press Box

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The New York Times publishes a weightless profile of Denis McDonough.

Denis McDonough 

National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough wades like a colossus through the Obama White House in a New York Times weekend piece by Helene Cooper, “The Saturday Profile: The Adviser at the Heart of National Security” (July 10).

“When it comes to national security, Mr. Obama’s inner circle is so tight it largely consists of Mr. McDonough,” the Times reports. McDonough shoves aside the dwarves who are his superiors and who dare arrive at an Afghanistan consensus that conflicts with the president’s. He fires a get-things-done communiqué from his BlackBerry—”which is never far from his side”—that compels Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to keep Florida airspace open to Haitian evacuations. When the Rolling Stone piece on Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal broke, “Mr. McDonough was one of about a half-dozen people he immediately summoned to the Oval Office.”

“He is the keeper of the president’s flame,” Cheryl Mills, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, tells the Times. He’s “far closer to the president than” his “old Democratic rivals,” it reports.

But why exactly does this 40-year-old, 6-foot-3 giant occupy an “inner circle” of two with Obama when it comes to U.S. national security? Why do all of his bureaucratic rivals kowtow to him? After reading the piece four times, I haven’t a clue.

What national security ideas does McDonough have? The Times doesn’t say. What advice has he given the president? The Times doesn’t say. Where did he go to school, and what has he written about national security? Why should Obama listen to him? What expertise does he bring to the job? Again, the Times doesn’t say. What did he do for a living before he joined the Obama presidential campaign? The Times does better here, reporting that he worked as a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., until Daschle was voted out of office in 2004, after which McDonough took an appointment at the liberal Center for American Progress.

What are McDonough’s great accomplishments in the Obama administration? If your definition of accomplishments is broad enough, the Times is here to inform you that he has chewed out Pentagon and State Department officials he suspects of leaking, has berated “some of the Democratic Party’s most distinguished foreign policy dignitaries when they have dared to critique Mr. Obama publicly,” and has blown up at unnamed reporters. He watches the president’s back. He also makes “sure that junior members of the National Security Council staff are invited to receptions and parties.” Recently, say his anonymous colleagues, he’s “mellowed.”

Although the piece reads like a beat sweetener, designed to convert excessive flattery into access, I doubt that McDonough’s heart will be won by such empty wooing as “Mr. McDonough looks more like a Town & Country cover model than a Washington foreign policy wonk.”

Does McDonough, who refused to be interviewed for the article, have any enemies or even opponents, a necessary element of any profile? Yes, the Times reports, but it doesn’t name them. Does anybody in the White House, Washington, or the universe have anything negative to say about the man? Not in the piece, although it does bestow anonymity upon “one administration official” who praises McDonough’s performance during the 2008 campaign as Obama’s foreign policy guru. The unnamed official says, “Foreign policy was always the high wire for us on the campaign. … [Obama] trusted Denis to get the job done but not sand down his views.”

The weightlessness of the copy forces the engaged reader to search the Web for the basics on the man. The Denis McDonough page on the WhoRunsGov site (owned, like Slate, by the Washington Post Co.) reports that he earned his undergraduate degree from St. John’s University (1992) and his master’s degree from Georgetown University (1996). He worked as a House international relations committee staffer from 1996 through 1999, after which he moved to Daschle’s office. At the Center for American Progress he researched health care policy. WhoRunsGov also links to two 2006 articles by McDonough, one published by Henry L. Stimson Center, “Short Term Focus on Long Term Challenges: The Administration, Congress and Iraq” (PDF) and the other published by the Center for American Progress, “No Mere Oversight: Congress Oversight of Intelligence Is Broken” (PDF).

Additional McDonough details appear in a March 1, 2010, profile in Part of his master’s thesis was on “the Northern Troubles,” he  “frequently plays basketball with the president,” and he “is deeply Catholic” and has 10 siblings, two of whom are priests.

As the reader pares the fat and gristle away from the McDonough profile, all that remains is an attractive skeleton whose primary skill is his perfect loyalty to his boss. That can’t possibly be the McDonough story. I demand a do-over by the Times.


Tip of the tam o’shanter to Michael Schrage for directing my attention to the article. Send additional facts about McDonough to Flip your lid at my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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