Politics and policy: Tom Donilon’s rise to national security adviser

(CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES ) - President Obama announces Tom Donilon will replace Gen. James Jones as national security adviser.

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.

Donilon declined to comment on any internal discussions, but, as he sipped fuel from an omnipresent can of Diet Coke, he spoke enthusiastically about the “full embrace of India.”

Biden also wouldn’t discuss Donilon’s personal recommendations to the president, but said Donilon’s view on the importance of the India trip was correct. “Tom turned out to be dead right,” he said, calling the trip a net positive. He added that the trip wasn’t unrelated to Donilon’s insistence to keep “bringing my focus and the president’s focus, not back to, but to the emerging powers.”

In the summer of 2010, Donilon met Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, for lunch in Washington. Clemons shared with Donilon a Chinese official’s private remark that the Asian power’s great hope was “to keep America distracted in small Middle Eastern countries.”

According to Clemons, “Donilon said, ‘That’s our big challenge.’ ”

A few months later, in September, Donilon raised his hand to go on a trip to China with Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and received meetings with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. While the administration’s progress with China has been mixed, to put it charitably, administration officials said the Chinese identified him as the guy to talk to on foreign policy issues. Like many people in Washington, the Chinese were likely aware that in his two years as the extraordinarily hands-on deputy to the remarkably hands-off Gen. Jim Jones, Donilon organized and participated in more than 300 of the deputy-level meetings, where much of the policy is made.

“He carried the ball on a lot of issues,” said Sandy Berger, a former national security adviser under Bill Clinton.

Donilon also spoke with satisfaction about his role in helping hammer out a new strategic arms treaty with Russia, one of the president’s foreign policy accomplishments. But he was less loquacious about the calls he has made back home to help get the treaty passed in the Senate. Whereas administration officials said Jones put a lot of emphasis on getting recalcitrant Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, considered the key vote to the bill’s passage, to go along with the treaty, Donilon has cast a wider net to allay Republican concerns.

“People tend to take his call around town,” said Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, an old acquaintance. “That’s a big skill.”

Donilon, for once, acknowledged that he hadn’t entirely retired his old political tools.

“I’ve been part of our effort to make the case,” he said, adding, “I contribute.”

The uniformed ranks

Donilon’s central role in the West Wing could not be more different than that of his predecessor.

“Some of the things that were terribly important to others were not terribly important to me,” acknowledged Jones, who had little experience in Democratic power politics or familiarity with its main players.

“I had never heard of him. Never. Nope,” Jones said of Donilon. “I do remember Rahm Emanuel in Chicago; when I first met Rahm, basically he suggested that I talk to him. I did not know how close they were. Nobody told me that, but they are obviously very close as I found out during my stay at the White House.”

That admission also reflects Donilon’s unfamiliarity with the uniformed ranks. In September, news leaked that journalist Bob Woodward’s latest book “Obama’s Wars,” quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling Donilon a “disaster” as an eventual national security adviser.

The quote became fodder for the political media and cable TV, and some conservative press questioned whether Donilon was antagonistic to the Pentagon. Donilon shrugged off any “conspiracies” that the quote was intended to weaken his influence. “This is the third administration I have been in,” Donilon said. “So you know, stray voltage like that really doesn’t distract me.”

Donilon characteristically sought to downplay any tension between himself and the military. He said he had a good relationship with Gates and met him weekly for lunch.

“We have more alignment now, internally,” he said, adding the military leaders had both a better sense of him and his “large responsibility to make sure that the president’s decisions are executed.”

At the completion of the December review on Afghanistan, it was clear Obama intended to withdraw troops sooner rather than later. The decisive debate will come in the summer, and skeptics about sustaining a large military presence there see tough times ahead.

“He has a very challenging year ahead of him in dealing with Pentagon,” said Christopher, former secretary of state and mentor to Donilon.

“If I had to pick the guys most likely to and capable of, if need be, standing up to the military, I rank Tom at the top,” said Biden, who advocated against the troop surge. Biden said military leaders had learned that with Donilon, “if they are going to take a position contrary to the president’s position, then bring your best game.”

The fork in the road

Donilon’s friends and admirers compare his mind to a file cabinet. During the interview, he referred to a White House notepad on which he had marked key points. His pride in preparation, he said, was instilled early.

His father, he said, always told him and his three younger siblings, “Level of effort matters in most things in life.” His mother worked two jobs, as a school secretary and message service operator. In her spare time, she served as the president of the city’s school secretaries and janitors union.

The overachiever environment of the White House is not new to Donilon. His brother Mike went on to be a key political adviser to Biden and other powerful politicians. His other brother, Terrence, is now the communications director for the Archdiocese of Boston. (The Church’s search was carried out by a group close to Biden.) His sister is a nurse. His best friend down the block, Devine, is now one of the Democratic Party’s key consultants. Around the corner, Mark Gallogly became a private equity giant and early, influential Obama donor.

Donilon went to Providence’s La Salle Academy, a Catholic boys’ school also attended by Reed, who denied that he has any interest in joining Donilon at the principals’ table by replacing Gates. Donilon won a model U.N. contest at Harvard. “They were Russia,” recalled Devine. Donilon went on to Catholic University, where he hit it off with another Irish Catholic guy fascinated by politics, Terry McAuliffe.

Classmates recalled Donilon and McAuliffe as the school’s political establishment.

“The guys in my group were all about bringing some change and reform,” said John Sumser, now a human resources consultant in California, who then ran a faction against Donilon and McAuliffe in student government. “And Tom was more the standard student government guy.”

After graduation in 1977, a professor set Donilon up with a White House internship, which he soon parlayed into a staff position. For the 1980 reelection effort, Donilon and other young campaign soldiers, including Devine, Tony Corrado and McAuliffe, rented a group house in Northeast Washington. “Hopefully, you haven’t done too much research on that,” Donilon said wryly.

Referring to McAuliffe, now a longtime Clinton loyalist and fierce critic of Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary, he added, “I actually brought Terry into the Carter campaign.” When asked if he rued that day, he smiled and said, “Not until recent elections.” (McAuliffe, uncharacteristically, declined to comment.)

The Carter reelection campaign faced a crisis caused by a convention challenge from Ted Kennedy, who was angry over stalled health-care reforms. Hamilton Jordan assigned his young protege as the Democratic convention’s chief knife fighter.

“We went back and looked at every successful and unsuccessful convention challenge to a nominee,” said John Rendon, who was the convention manager and now works closely with the Pentagon as a media consultant. “We went back 50 years or so.”

“I remember this very well,” said Donilon, who recalled studying the work that Jim Baker did in preparing for the 1976 convention, when Gerald Ford survived a challenge from Ronald Reagan.

With Donilon’s work to identify and target the wavering Carter delegates, Carter stopped the slippage and won the convention. Weakened, he went on to lose the election to Reagan. These days, with frustration building in Obama’s liberal base over — among other things — health care, a Democratic challenge to the president is the administration’s ultimate, if unrealistic, nightmare.

But Donilon said he doesn’t want or expect to be called off the bench. “I haven’t been involved in politics in a long time,” he insisted.

That decision to get off the political path amounted to what Donilon depicted as a fork-in-the-road moment. After Carter’s loss, his campaign manager Robert Strauss presented the political wunderkind with an opportunity.

“It would have been a natural progression to go into political consulting and to go into politics full time,” Donilon said.

But officials in the Carter administration interjected with some advice. Most importantly, Christopher, then deputy secretary of state, suggested he read Dean Acheson’s memoir “Present at the Creation” to sniff out a different route. Donilon opted to enroll in the University of Virginia School of Law. And the rest is history.

The reality is less stark. Donilon managed to keep a foot on both paths.

“He briefed me on my debates,” said former vice president Walter Mondale, who described Donilon as invaluable to his 1984 presidential campaign. “And I think just about every Democratic nominee since then.”

While always a famously voracious reader, his enthusiasms back then extended to other fare as well. Friends from that period describe a movie buff (he loved “Patton”) with a well-thumbed black book and a penchant for the Palm steakhouse. Marty Kaplan, who worked closely with Donilon on Mondale’s 1984 campaign, referred to him as “Falstaffian.”

But the Reagan revolution dispatched Carter and Mondale and essentially changed the political firmament Donilon had understood. He soon gravitated toward the orbit of a new Democratic star, Joe Biden, and without ever working on the Hill, became a trusted adviser, including on how to oppose conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987.

“I remember Tom’s advice back then, and it was, ‘Just make sure you do this in a totally evenhanded way,’ ” said Biden, who described himself as “joined at the hip” to Donilon. It wasn’t the only important connection Donilon made at the time. In 1988, Russell, an attractive aide six years his junior whom he had met back on the Mondale campaign, joined Biden’s presidential effort.

“We were secretly dating,” Russell said. To keep Donilon’s identity hidden during his frequent calls, she said, “I made him use a fake name. It was an Irish name, we’ll leave it at that.”

(“You’re not cleared for that information,” Donilon said when asked for clarification.)

After Biden’s bid crashed in a plagiarism scandal, Christopher swooped in to recruit Donilon to the law firm O’Melveny & Myers in 1991, the year he married Russell. In 1993, Christopher, who was by then secretary of state for Bill Clinton, called again, this time to hire Donilon as his chief of staff. The White House, mindful of Donilon’s political chops, had similar ideas.

“There was a bit of a tug of war,” Christopher said. “And I was glad to have won out.”

A seat at the table

The Clinton era reintroduced Donilon’s familiar face as a fixture in Democratic foreign policy circles.

Ambassador Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department official at the time, recalled crammed meetings in Donilon’s small office, where he would jot down notes on a yellow legal pad and issue marching orders to as many as a dozen top officials gathered around his desk. In the Haiti crisis of 1994, Donilon argued to loosen the rules of engagement for American troops, according to Rendon, who closely advised the Pentagon on public relations issues.

When the situation in Bosnia boiled over, Christopher said that Donilon brought in Richard Holbrooke, with whom he stayed close and visited on his deathbed this month. When the photos of the Srebrenica massacre came to light, Donilon “understood we had to act,” Sherman said, and quickly went about gaining support on Capitol Hill, consulting with NATO allies and getting the legal authority for a strike.

But Donilon also grew mindful of the rising powers in the East. Later in the administration, as Christopher prepared to make a visit to Japan, where Mondale was serving as ambassador, the former vice president received a call from Donilon, who peppered him with questions on trade issues.

“He had a deep interest in Asia,” Mondale said.

Despite his role in multinational economic deals abroad, Donilon has developed a reputation among friends at home as personally tight with a dollar. “He’s not a big spender,” his wife deadpanned.

But it is not for want of capital.

In 1999, after a resume-enriching stretch in power, Donilon turned down the post of deputy Treasury secretary and took a lucrative job as chief lobbyist for Fannie Mae. At the time, his daughter, Sarah, was 3, and his wife was nine months pregnant with their son Teddy. Either to provide his children with the opportunities he never had, as his friends insist, or simply to cash in, as his detractors suggest, he received millions over the next six years to advise the company and lobby Congress. His critics say he bears some of the blame for the company’s role in the economically disastrous mortgage fiasco.

“I don’t think anybody has indicated that I did anything but do my job at Fannie Mae,” said Donilon, quickly switching to what he considered a more important use of his time outside of government: connecting to a network of think tanks and foreign-policy eminences to stay in the loop.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign, Donilon unofficially returned to Biden’s side as he again sought the presidency and later emerged as a key figure in Obama’s debate preparation and, ultimately, the transition.

Shortly after Thanksgiving in 2008, Donilon and Mark Lippert, Obama’s foreign policy adviser in the Senate, interviewed with Jones in his Chamber of Commerce office on H Street. The trio talked about Jones’s belief in empowering subordinates and the need to expand the National Security Council into a team, instead of what Jones called “an empire of one or two people, individuals who go and whisper in the president’s ear.” On a yellow legal pad, they mapped out the bottom-up structure for the administration’s national security decision-making process.

“I told Tom he was going to be the guy who would keep the trains running on time,” Jones said.

For two years, Donilon did exactly that. Now he has a seat at the table and the ear of a president. According to Biden, after a presentation of the key choices and positions of the principals, Obama will turn to ask, “Well, what’s your opinion, Tom?” Asked if the president turns to Donilon often, Biden said with a chuckle, “Yes, yes, he does.”