What to expect when you’re expecting a plum political appointment


By openly campaigning for a Senate appointment, former Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) is breaking with etiquette. (ADAM HUNGER/REUTERS)

But he drew a few audible gasps recently when he brazenly declared he wanted Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to name him to temporarily fill the Senate seat that will be vacated when Sen. John Kerry becomes Secretary of State. “Coach, put me in,” he pleaded last month during an appearance on MSNBC.

Such public campaigning for the Senate seat flouts the ironclad rules governing behavior of those seeking political appointments and nominations. Chief among the code of conduct for would-be candidates for plum jobs is the edict, “thou shalt not appear to want the job.”

The key word there is “appear.”

“It’s like how people courted in the Victorian era, where you’re doing everything possible — in public — to show you’re not interested, while feverishly working behind the scenes to make it happen,” says Chris Lehane, a political consultant and former aide in the Clinton White House.

And since there are still plenty of jobs still up for grabs in President Obama’s second term — from Cabinet secretaries to deputy undersecretaries to ambassadorships to spots on lowly advisory boards — the Loop figured it’s a good time to go over the rules of the road.

First, get those skeletons out of the closet pronto, says Tom Korologos, who shepherded many a nominee of Presidents Reagan and Bush I through the thorny thicket to confirmation. If anyone from the White House or a surrogate comes sniffing around, immediately disclose anything in your past that might prove embarrassing to the president (or whoever is doing the appointing), he instructs. “As sure as God made little green apples, it’s all going to come out,” he says.

Then, once you’re on a list, it’s your public behavior that counts. In this phase, discretion isn’t just the better part of valor, experts say — it’s the whole thing. Lehane says the best course of action is to avoid talking to the press altogether (though it pains the Loop to pass on this advice).

We’re told it’s best to watch what you say — even to your friends. And to watch what your spouse says. Don’t talk about getting the job.

And don’t express your own opinions. Cancel any public speaking engagements or other appearances that might put you at odds with your would-be new boss. And use any others you might have lined up to help out. It can’t hurt to run any upcoming TV appearances or speeches by the White House and ask if there’s anything you might emphasize that would be helpful to the president, Lehane advises. “Say you’re planning to describe him as a ‘unique combination of Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Mother Teresa,’ and to please let you know if they think you’ve understated it.”

Subtle stuff.

The trick is to enlist friends to do the dirty work for you. They can make calls on your behalf to the president or to senior-level staff with whom they might have relationships, or to members of the Senate, if the job requires that chamber’s OK.

But play it cool, especially in this administration, cautions one former Clinton and current Obama appointee. Letting pals do the talking is the way to go, because even a whiff of publicly craving a spot is a no-go, the appointee says.

After all, the president is still known as “no-drama Obama.”

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.

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