Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly identified Larry Summers as Obama's Treasury secretary. He held that position under President Bill Clinton but is now director of the White House National Economic Council. In the same article, Terry McAuliffe was described as a "fierce critic of Obama" during the 2008 primaries, when he was the chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. McAuliffe limited his public statements to a strong advocacy for Clinton.

Tom Donilon: Political wunderkind to policy trailblazer

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 7:43 PM

On a Friday evening in 1979, President Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, called the White House looking for someone to tell him which Cabinet officials had refused requests to campaign for the embattled president. Tom Donilon, a 23-year-old staffer, took the call and spent the weekend compiling a memo and printing out stacks of evidence. Jordan took the incriminating papers to Camp David, where Carter presided over an administration-wide "domestic summit," and slammed them down on the table. A week later, Carter asked his entire Cabinet to resign.

"And that's how Tom was discovered," said Tad Devine, a Democratic media consultant and lifelong friend of Donilon.

The creation myth has become Washington folklore, as Donilon has completed a metamorphosis three decades in the making, rising to the position of President Obama's national security adviser and the patron saint of staffers.

"It's the kind of job I've been preparing for, for a long time, frankly," said Donilon, 55. According to one senior administration official, granted anonymity to describe internal deliberations, Donilon picked the national security job over that of White House chief of staff, despite the entreaties of Rahm Emanuel and the pick of posts from Obama.

A chief of staff job would have had Donilon tending to the internal bruises of an administration battered by midterm elections and an abysmal economy. Instead, he chose to focus his later life's work on the post-Bush-era rebuilding of a national security decision-making process and, more ambitiously, the shifting of America's stance in the world. To the extent that there is a Donilon Doctrine, it envisions a re-balancing of resources and interests away from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe and toward Asia, where he sees America building bigger, better relationships with China and India.

"This posture thing is very, very important," Donilon said. "Where do we need more emphasis? Where do we need more resources and attention? And Asia was an area that we thought was very, very important."

Personally, Donilon is also doing a bit of his own posturing. His objectively impressive transition from the political fast track to the apex of a long and plodding policy path resulted, he said, from his decision to "turn away from politics and toward policy and law," in the model of Dean Acheson, Warren Christopher and Jim Baker. This characterization tends to gloss over his decades as a political knife fighter, his history of courting the press and his lucrative years as a lobbyist for Fannie Mae. That resume and his political acuity may be at odds with his professed policy asceticism, but it makes him doubly useful to his bosses.

Vice President Biden said that when it came to understanding the balance of tactics and strategy, of policy and politics, "Tom does better than anyone I have ever dealt with, and I am going to say something outrageous-sounding to you, including Kissinger."

The guy to talk to

On a recent afternoon, Donilon, wearing a blue shirt and red tie, sat for an hour-long discussion in his office, decorated with a tinseled Christmas tree, portraits of his wife, Cathy Russell, who is Jill Biden's chief of staff, and their two young children, Sarah and Teddy. A blown-up photo showed a water-gun fight between Teddy and the vice president, who has played a central role in his political and personal life.

Donilon's thin upper lip disappears when he talks, and it disappears often. He has a high word-per-minute ratio, packed with diplomatic paeans to "American power, prestige and authority" and discretionary feints like "I don't want to comment on that," which he employed when asked about his interest in the chief of staff job, his conversations with the president, National Security Council meetings or the accuracy of the Jordan-memo legend. His own opinions, to the extent that they are expressed at all, come wrapped in legalistic, first-person-plural gauze about "the way we approach our work here."

Despite all this, Donilon has a disarming manner. His barrage of sentences is softened by an almost priestly voice. His supple physique reflects decades of a sedentary life digesting briefing books and biographies (the latest being Bob Dylan's). He has the wary eyes of a man coming off a long flight. In fact, Donilon had just returned from Afghanistan and in the last month traveled the equivalent of twice around the globe.

In the lead-up to the president's recent trip to India, Donilon acted as the most vocal proponent in top-level meetings for Obama to punctuate his South Asia visit with a proposal for India to join the U.N. Security Council. According to the administration official, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice objected on the grounds that the move might produce tension among other Security Council aspirants such as Brazil and Germany. The president agreed with Donilon.

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