In the Loop

Is national security deputy Donilon moving up?

By Al Kamen
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 11:02 PM

Who's got the best deputy job in Washington? It would have to be deputy national security adviser Tom Donilon. Donilon had been mentioned as a possible White House chief of staff, but now that the position has gone to Pete Rouse, history gives Donilon the nod to replace departing national security adviser Jim Jones.

Nearly half of the last 15 deputy national security advisers - going back to the Kennedy administration - have eventually assumed the top job. Since 1961, seven deputies have moved up, starting with Walt W. Rostow (after a detour to State) for Lyndon Johnson; Brent Scowcroft for Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; and Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter and Colin Powell for Ronald Reagan - who cycled through six national security advisers in eight years.

In recent years, the job has been a more long-lived full four years. Sandy Berger, after four years as deputy, moved up to No. 1 for four years for Bill Clinton. Same with Steve Hadley for George W. Bush. Five of the last nine national security advisers were previously deputies.

If, as seems widely predicted, Jones leaves his post at year's end or thereabouts, Donilon is believed to be a virtual lock for the job. If it's not time to measure the drapes, it's surely time to buy a tape measure.

Tea-leaf readers note that the usually low-profile Donilon recently went with outgoing National Economic Council chief Larry Summers to China to meet with senior Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

It was only Donilon's second trip to the Middle Kingdom in the past two years - and his first as a lead player. (The other trip was with President Obama last November.) He's been to Afghanistan only once, during Obama's six hours there in the dead of night back in March. (Well, once is probably enough.)

There may be detractors. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, for example, is quoted in Bob Woodward's latest as saying Donilon would be a "disaster" in the job. On the other hand, Gates hinted a few weeks ago that he may go earlier than some observers had thought. Gates told reporters he'd prefer that his successor's confirmation not be "in the early spring of 2012, in the middle of a presidential election year." That could mean he'd have to leave around mid-2011 - although these days the election "year" starts next month.

Meanwhile, a Donilon move to the big office across the hall could open the way for NSC chief of staff Denis R. McDonough to move up out of the basement to Donilon's cubbyhole office.

When scribes turn flack

Speaking of movement, the expected move of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to "senior adviser" will create another big opening. One name rising on the shortlist for the job is Jay Carney, Vice President Biden's communications director, who's been getting high marks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Carney used to be one of us, which might augur that the mutual loathing of the White House media team and some of those in the press corps - a situation that doubtless has boosted Obama's poll numbers - might ease somewhat. We'll see.

Carney's a 20-year veteran at Time magazine, having been in the Moscow bureau and run the Miami bureau. He covered the Clinton and Bush II White Houses and was Time's Washington bureau chief before joining the administration. He also gives great TV.

As a former ink-stained wretch, Carney would be something of a rarity in the job. You'd have to go back to Ford's 1974 selection of Detroit News Washington bureau chief Jerald terHorst, who resigned a month later in protest of Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon. (That was back in the days when people resigned on matters of principle.) NBC News reporter Ron Nessen succeeded terHorst.

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