In Frenetic White House, A Low-Key 'Outsider'
Thursday, May 7, 2009
President Obama's national security adviser, James L. Jones, looks for rare opportunities to ride his bike from his McLean home to work at the White House. On occasion, he has pedaled back across the Potomac River for lunch. He tries to end his workday at 7 p.m.
In recent weeks, Jones has been portrayed in foreign policy articles and blogs as too measured and low-key to keep pace with the hard chargers working late hours in the West Wing. Some senior White House officials questioned early on whether Jones, 65, a retired four-star Marine general who barely knew Obama before the election, would succeed among younger staffers whose relationships with the president were forged during the long and arduous campaign.
"He's not very visible," said I.M. Destler, co-author of a recent book on national security advisers. "I'm a skeptic on whether Jones has the sort of flexibility and ability" required by Obama, Destler said.
White House officials who cited early misgivings, more stylistic than substantive, insisted they have now disappeared. But Jones acknowledges that the road has not always been smooth, and he appears more comfortable than some of his administration colleagues in saying they still have some distance to travel.
It is "absolutely" fair to say that it has taken some time for him and his colleagues to get used to each other, Jones said in an interview Tuesday. "From this West Wing, in particular, because this is Obama Nation, right? True? This is where the Obama election campaign came, landed, en masse."
Jones, reserved and ramrod straight, with a steady, blue-eyed stare, is the unquestioned odd man out at the White House in both background and personality. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, is known as hyperactive and hyperbolic. On the National Security Council (NSC), chief of staff Mark Lippert and strategic communications director Denis McDonough are intense, stay-late-at-the-office foreign policy experts whose ties to Obama are long and deep. Deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon has an extensive history with the Democratic Party and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"I'm not only an outsider, but
I'm a 20-years-older-than-anybody-around outsider," Jones said. "I'm a former general. And it took me a while to get the president to call me by my first name. Now, I'm 'Hey, you,' " he said with a laugh.
"But there is a generational thing here. There is a process thing here. I'm used to staffs, and I'm used to a certain order. I'm used to people having certain roles. And so there's a very natural adjustment period."
"My calculus was that it would take six months," Jones said. "We're about halfway there, and I think every week gets a little better."
Despite early predictions that Obama's "team of rivals" would clash, Jones by all accounts has facilitated smooth relations among high-profile Cabinet members.
In the White House, Jones said he has had to adjust to the relatively free flow of advice that Obama encourages. "When I first went into the Oval Office, I didn't expect six other people from the NSC to go with me," he said. Now, he said, "I think the president and I are very comfortable with the fact that I don't have to be the shadow. I don't have to be there all the time. I really have great people. I want them to be trusted."