Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled the surname of CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell. It also gave an incorrect title for Leon Panetta. Now the secretary of defense, Panetta was CIA director at the time of the conversation discussed in the column. The version below has been corrected.
The squabbling between political campaigns and the harrumphing of pundits were put in proper perspective at, of all places, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — the annual Prom on the Potomac where 2,000 or so media members and movie stars gather to honor the president and admire one another.
It is customary at this “exclusive” congregation for media organizations to compete for the celebrity “get.” Thus, this year, all were abuzz over the stars, including George Clooney, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg and, of course, Kim Kardashian, without whom no shallow occasion would be complete — and finally, Lindsay Lohan.
Then there was Table 46, one of The Washington Post’s tables, to which I was fortuitously assigned. We were the un-celebrities — writers, editors, Undersecretary of State Bob Hormats, and a military officer who introduced himself as “Bill.”
He was obviously important. His dress uniform was festooned with medals and ribbons — lots of them. And he had that bearing we recognize in military elites that betrays another kind of space, a private zone where intelligence and readiness keep each other quiet company.
Bill . . . who did he say?
Turns out this humble, polite man was Adm. William McRaven, leader of the Joint Special Operations Command that oversaw the raid to kill Osama bin Laden. In a recounting of the eight-month lead-up to the raid, Time magazine features McRaven as part of President Obama’s highly secret, and secretive, inner circle. He’s the guy to whom CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell was referring when he turned to then-CIA Director Leon Panetta in the early planning stages and said, “It’s time to call in the pros.”
The Obama administration has been taking some flak for touting bin Laden’s killing in a campaign ad, including a barb this week from former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen. “I do worry a great deal that this time of year that somehow this gets spun into election politics,” Mullen said in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams. “I can assure you that those individuals who risk their lives — the last thing in the world that they want is to be spun into that.”
By Time’s telling, Obama clearly deserves enormous credit for the execution of the bin Laden hit. His measured approach to the exercise was key. There were a hundred ways things could have gone wrong, and waiting for just the right moment was crucial. Whether it is appropriate for Obama to turn the operation into a political instrument is another matter. One special forces officer summed it up to me this way: “A good leader lets his people shine, and that reflects on him without him having to beat his own drum.”
Reading the Time story, one is reminded that the business of the executive office is far graver than what tends to nourish the daily news cycle. Serious business gets done without notice, thanks in part to the lack of notice. The bin Laden raid was successful largely because no one leaked. Secrets were kept. Highly trained men did their jobs without fanfare.
“This is what we do,” McRaven told the president, according to Time. “We fly in by helicopters, we assault compounds, we grab the bad guy or whatever is required, and we get out.”
At one point during the dinner, I thought the president was going to recognize our man, Bill. Obama began his speech by acknowledging that, a year ago, the United States delivered justice to a deserving person. I glanced at McRaven thinking, aha, he’s about to have his well-deserved moment. Instead, the huge screens in the room flashed the face of Donald Trump. It was a setup for a joke.
I asked McRaven what it’s like to wake up every day and know that you’re the one who brought down bin Laden. Does he open his eyes and think, wow, I did that?
No, he smiles and shakes his head. “It’s our job. It’s what we do.”
No one at the dinner posed for a picture with McRaven, except (at my insistence) his hostess for the evening, Post reporter Karen Tumulty. A fifth-grade classmate of McRaven’s, Tumulty persuaded him to attend the dinner.
As the crowd followed Kardashian down the hall and others grabbed Clooney for one more photo, McRaven slipped out of the room and down a hallway into the night. Just like a year ago after Abbottabad — unnoticed, unrecognized, uncelebrated.
Ignoring the best while celebrating the least — it’s what we do.