Brother Bill: A Look at William Daley

FROM OUR FEBRUARY 2005 ISSUE: The youngest of the seven children of the late mayor Richard J. and Eleanor “Sis” Daley, William Daley has moved beyond the family’s local power base to hold major positions in government, business, and the law. Supporters and critics alike credit him with remarkable savvy and consider him a go-to talent for plotting strategy (although he insists that he and his brother–the current mayor–“don’t talk about city stuff”). Now Bill Daley is back in Chicago, with a top job at J. P. Morgan Chase and big charitable dollars to dispense. But given his record for exceeding expectations, few observers expect his shrewd moves to stop there

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For Daley, it was a heady time. He met with the President and Vice President every day. He joined in the White House staff meetings. Some outsiders suspected that Daley did not know what was in the treaties. Those who worked with him say he knew enough to be effective. “Bill was focused on the jugular,” says Sandy Berger, who joined the NAFTA team and was later Clinton’s national security adviser.

NAFTA passed in the House in mid-November 1993, and in the Senate soon after. Al Gore gives Daley “virtually 100 percent of the credit. Nobody thought that we could get [NAFTA], but he was able to pull it out of the bag.”

That victory, says John Daley, was “the time he proved himself on his own.” Bill, who had taken a leave of absence from Mayer, Brown, returned in triumph—but, as always, with the question “What’s next?” on his mind.

Back in Chicago, Daley helped organize the hugely successful 1996 Democratic National Convention. That December, after Clinton’s re-election, Daley was having dinner in Washington when he got a call from Gore.

“You’re going to get a call a little later,” Gore said.

Daley, who preferred the Commerce Department to Transportation, asked, “Am I going to be wearing a railroad hat or a banker’s suit, Al?”

“I think you’ll be pleased,” the Vice President responded.

Daley returned to his hotel, where President Clinton called at around 10:30 to offer Commerce.

The next morning, during a nationally televised news conference in the Old Executive Office Building, Clinton introduced his nominees for Cabinet departments. The room was hot, and the bright lights made it hotter, as did the crush of journalists and television cameras. Daley started sweating, turned pale, and soon toppled headfirst from the stage into the lap of CNN newsman Wolf Blitzer. Daley’s son, Bill, who was in the audience, ran backstage, fearing his father had suffered a heart attack. A White House doctor dispensed apple juice, checked his vital signs, and determined nothing was wrong. Bill called relatives in Chicago who were watching the proceedings on television to report that everything was fine. Ten minutes later, the embarrassed nominee was applauded as he returned to the stage.

Today, he attributes the episode to a combination of having lost a lot of weight—he had wanted to look trim at the convention the summer before—and staying up most of the previous night, “calling people and with [political strategist] David Axelrod and others trying to figure out what I would say. And the next day I didn’t eat; I was nervous.”

The confirmation hearing itself seemed daunting. Buried in thick briefing books, Daley agonized that the hearings would be a quiz on what he knew about a department with 45,000 employees that encompassed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, the Patent and Trademark Office, the Census Bureau, and much more. “I couldn’t sleep, not just the night before but lots of nights around it.”

Senator John McCain, a friend and the chairman of the Commerce Committee, gave him some advice: “Quit approaching this like the bar exam. We want to know who you are, not what you know.” Daley recalls being told repeatedly that the senators don’t care what the nominee’s answers are. They just want to hear their questions.

“There is no room for politics in the Commerce Department,” Daley declared at thetop of the hearing, and he sailed through to confirmation.

As if to prove he was no lightweight, Daley worked 14-hour days; he was up at five and at the gym before arriving at his office at 6:30. He focused on the operational side of things, says Linda Bilmes, whom he brought in as his assistant secretary for administration and chief financial officer—taking on vested interests, shaking the place up by forcing senior career people to switch jobs, insisting on accountability, and cleaning up the balance sheets, which were such a mess that they had been declared “unauditable.” Bilmes describes Daley’s greatest strength as “cutting through the bullshit in Washington.” She thinks it helped that he came from Chicago and was “not beholden to the Beltway scene.”

By one standard, Daley’s tenure at Commerce was successful—calls for its abolition ceased. “I think he’ll be remembered as one of the best and most effective Secretaries of Commerce ever,” says Al Gore.

As Commerce Secretary, Daley went to almost all the state dinners and accompanied the President on most international trips. Having a front-row seat for the Monica Lewinsky scandal was less entertaining. When the story first broke, Bilmes says, Daley called his top people at Commerce into a meeting and warned, “We are here to do a job. If anyone should feel any wobbliness whatsoever, I want your resignation.” He was one of the Cabinet members dispatched by White House aides to face reporters and to express his total faith in the President. Eight months later, after admitting that he had lied, Clinton convened his Cabinet to apologize. Daley was alone in skipping the meeting, keeping his commitment to give a speech in New Hampshire. “My attitude was, Why are we torturing this poor guy?” Daley explains today. The journalist Roger Simon later reported that Daley told the President’s chief of staff, “Look, I’m glad I didn’t go. I don’t quote scripture, I don’t cry, I don’t hug. What would I have done at this thing?”

Bill Daley could commiserate with the President; Daley, too, was having problems in his marriage. Loretta might have preferred that her husband remain in the family law firm. While Bill was on and off airplanes, she was having children—first William R., then Lauren, Richard J. Daley II, and Maura.

Richie, as the second boy was called, seemed normal as a toddler, but turned out to suffer from chronic fibrosis of the lungs. The Daleys took him to specialists all over the country, but the boy kept getting worse. By second grade, he was hooked up to an oxygen machine in his classroom and soon he needed oxygen 24 hours a day. He died at age eight in March 1985.

Bill Daley’s desk at Commerce was almost completely clean, except for a group photograph of his children and a separate photograph of Richie. Today, Bill remembers Richie as having “a great personality for a little kid. He was a very perceptive young person with a great sense of humor. He kept that through some very, very difficult periods.”

In the last year of Richie’s life, Bill was often traveling with Mondale. When the former Vice President’s plane stopped in Chicago, Bill made sure that Richie got to meet Mondale and have his picture taken.

In 1995, Daley considered running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Simon, but eventually decided against it, telling Steve Neal, “My family doesn’t want to move to Washington, D.C.” Neal, a friend of Daley’s, wrote, “Political ambitions are less important to Daley than his family.”

Yet a year later, when he accepted the Commerce job, he did so, friends say, without Loretta’s blessing. She sat behind him during his confirmation hearings, looking unhappy and frightened. Her son, Bill, chalks that up to nerves. “We were all nervous,” he says.

Loretta had little interest in politics, says one friend. She maintained an air of independence and was intensely focused on rearing her children. For a while, the friend adds, the couple told others that Loretta would join her husband in Washington as soon as Maura graduated from St. Ignatius. But Maura went off to college and Loretta stayed in Chicago.

Today, Bill Daley declines to talk about his marriage. (Loretta Daley did not respond to a request for an interview.) “Just what’s reported is accurate,” Daley says. And that’s not much. In March 2001, the columnist Michael Sneed wrote in the Sun-Times that the couple had separated, and she proceeded to speculate: “Rumor: The couple’s marriage was on the rocks before Daley’s acceptance of a Cabinet position, but they appeared to patch things up when Mrs. Daley occasionally traveled to Washington to attend state functions. But word spread Mrs. Daley was unhappy with her husband’s decision to accept the job in the first place.”

Friends, colleagues, and family seem uncomfortable, almost scripted, when discussing Loretta. “She’s a great friend,” says John Daley, “a great woman. She’s a lovely, beautiful girl; a wonderful mother.”

During his confirmation hearings, the Daleys’ Tudor-style house in Sauganash was burglarized. Loretta, frightened to remain in the house that one friend describes as so grand that it looks as if it were out of a Chivas Regal ad, moved to Lincoln Park with her daughters. When in Chicago, Bill stayed at the Four Seasons and later bought an apartment on North Lake Shore Drive. In the Cook County courts, there is no record of a legal separation or divorce.

In June 2000, Daley was in his office at the Commerce Department when his chief of staff, David Lane, who was rushing off to meet out-of-town friends, caught his boss gazing pensively out the window. “You can’t have dinner?” asked Daley, who lived alone in a condominium on Pennsylvania Avenue. He sounded so plaintive that Lane put aside his plans. “I feel it coming,” Daley told him that night. Daley knew he was going to be asked to head the struggling Gore campaign.

“Commerce was the best job I could ever have,” Daley says today. For the first time, he had not been thinking about what he would do next.

A believer in his father’s admonition “Nothing good ever happens after midnight,” Daley was asleep that night when Al Gore called. “Let’s talk over coffee,” the groggy Commerce Secretary told the Vice President. “I was trying to stall,” Daley later recalled. “I’ll wait while you make a pot,” Gore replied. Daley had turned down the job a year earlier—it went to Tony Coelho, a former congressman—and he knew that loyalty meant he could not say no again. The official word was that Coelho was resigning for reasons of ill health. He was indeed ill, but so was the campaign, down 25 points in the polls. “Gore was in trouble,” Daley says. “Everybody was beating him up. It just didn’t seem right to say no when a lot of people were saying no to him.”

Daley’s job was to be the adult in the campaign, to discipline an unruly staff, “to keep the ships running on time,” as Gore’s campaign manager, Donna Brazile, puts it. Tom Nides, who ran Senator Joseph Lieberman’s Vice Presidential campaign, said that Daley was “the only one who could stand up to Gore. Bill was a peer; he had been a Cabinet secretary.”

Daley left his wood-paneled Commerce office, with its views of the Washington Monument, for a space in a strip mall in Nashville. Daley joked that he had an office that “looked out onto license plates.” He lived in a room in the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel.

Gore was trying out earth-tone casuals, but Daley stuck to a suit and tie. He was “always well dressed, well prepared, and very much in control,” says Brazile. Daley ran the campaign “like a board meeting,” she adds.

“I have enormous respect for his political skills and judgment, but I tend to lean toward the individuals like the Tony Coelhos who are involved and more engaged in rough-and-tumble politics as opposed to what I call executive politics.”

Explaining his style, Daley says, “It’s not just the politics part. But you’re also conveying in everything you do that you could run the government of the United States.”

The screaming matches born of too much caffeine and too little sleep ceased. “You don’t scream at Bill Daley,” Nides says. “You don’t have temper tantrums. People knew that when Bill said no, it was no.”

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