Press Box

The Unsweetened William M. Daley

The press neither flatters nor captures Obama’s new chief of staff.

William M. Daley with Barack Obama.
William M. Daley with Barack Obama

The easiest shot a press critic can take at reporters comes when the president appoints new cabinet secretaries or remakes the White House staff. Washington reporters, almost to a one, rush to write “beat sweeteners,” unctuous wads of copy designed to endear the newly appointed muckety-muck to the reporter who craves inside access. The love expressed in a beat sweetener isn’t binding—reporters who blow kisses at a subject frequently throw punches later. But time and again, reporters give new appointees a public tongue-bath in hopes of later getting access to a scoop in return for the self-abasement.

Because beat sweeteners are such an easy target, I unload on them every chance I get. (See my previous beat sweeteners about coverage of Robert S. Mueller II, * Nancy Pelosi, Pete Rouse, and Rajiv Shah.) Yesterday, when President Obama named William M. Daley his new chief of staff, I sharpened my pencils in anticipation of the wave of Daley beat sweeteners I expected this morning’s papers would bring.

But nothing! The Washington Postlet me down, as did the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Oh, the stories are largely favorable. As if shaped by a template in heaven, all of the stories cite Daley’s deep experience in politics, business, banking and government, the bulk of his résumé and the girth of his portfolio, his skill at kingmaking, and his place in the Daley political dynasty. (His father was mayor of Chicago and his brother is finishing his final term in that office.) To a one, they present Daley as a Democratic Party centrist and pragmatist who parlayed his family connections into a career that has cartwheeled from law to campaign politics to banking to business to government office to lobbying to the corporate boardroom, with return visits to some of those stops.

Yet none of the stories sucks up to Daley in any lampoonable way, which is good news for consumers of news but bad news for press critics looking to write about beat sweeteners. Still, none of the pieces satisfactorily captures Daley. We find out what he isn’t: He doesn’t scream like predecessor Rahm Emanuel. When the Post reports that Daley is “obsessively neat,” you really want to know more. Is he a chronic de-linter? Does he, like Jann Wenner, demand that all of his underlings maintain clean cubicles and uncluttered desktops? Does he have his car detailed every day?

The Bill Daley mystery can’t be cracked without investigating the clues scattered by the paterfamilias, Richard J. Daley, who won as many mayoral terms in Chicago as Michael Jordan * has collected championship rings. Brother Richard M. Daley has also won the office of mayor six consecutive times.Neither ever aspired to higher office, which, in such successful career politicians, is a mark of kookiness. Their disdain for the offices of governor, senator, and president comes not from any sense of Chicago provincialism—although all Daleys are accomplished provincialists. It comes from their preference for being the guy who tells the more powerful guy what to do, not the guy who actually does it.

Richard J. Daley accumulated sufficient political power as mayor that he could make and break national political careers from the comfort of his office. In his endlessly vituperative book Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, Mike Royko writes that in 1971, after Richard J. Daley won his fifth term, he met with the press and was asked whether any of the presidential hopefuls—Edward Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie—had phoned their congratulations. Writes Royko: “Daley smiled. ‘All of them did.’ “

Because politics changed by the time Richard M. Daley became mayor (1989), he hasn’t been able to flex that sort of power. Little brother Bill has come closer to swinging dad’s sort of clout. In one sense, he comes closer to conforming to the Daley ideal by having never run for office. He was appointed, not elected, as secretary of commerce, and he worked as NAFTA “czar” under Bill Clinton. He was hired, not elected, by JPMorgan Chase, Abbott Laboratories, Boeing, Fannie Mae, Electronic Data Systems, SBC (a telco that later purchased AT&T), and Evercore Capital Partners. He was hired, not elected, to manage Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and to advise both Joe Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign and Walter Mondale’s 1984 run. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bill Daley turned down Obama’s invitation to become ambassador to China and other assignments before finally accepting the chief of staff job. If we lived in a fascist state, Bill Daley’s corporate-state credentials would make him a perfect counselor to the generalissimo.

A beat sweetener would be wasted on Daley. He’s obviously immune to press blandishments and will leak his best stuff based on how it will be played, not according to how various reporters played him.

When the New York Times reports that the Daley “family has an almost royal status” in Chicago, it’s not exaggerating. It’s understating the family’s continued clout. If the Daley family believes in anything, it believes in getting things done, and because getting things done requires power, they’re born Machiavellians. With Bill Daley manning the Oval Office turnstile as chief of staff, determining whom Obama sees and whom he ignores, the family is finally more than royal. It has control over its very own prince.

Addendum, Jan. 8: I should have waited 24 hours. The New York Times pours honey all over Daley in its piece today, “Obama’s Top Aide a Tough, Decisive Negotiator.” For a human-scale portrait of Obama’s new chief of staff, see this 2005 feature in Chicago magazine by Carol Felsenthal.

Correction, Jan. 8, 2011: The original version of this article misspelled Michael Jordan’s last name. It also referred to Robert S. Mueller II when it should have called him Robert S. Mueller III. (Return to the updated sentences.)


Did you know there is another Daley brother? That’s John P. Daley and—surprise, surprise—he’s a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners (11th district). Send Daley family news, genealogical studies, and DNA samples to Drop Twitter for feed into your bong. (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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