Carol Felsenthal
On politics

How David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, and More Chicago Characters Come Off in Mark Leibovich’s D.C. Takedown

Axelrod is a “kibitzing walrus of a mensch.” Jarrett? “Personal custodian of the president’s lofty motives.” This is an acidic new book about America’s capital.

Photo: The White House

I had promised a complete look at the Chicagoans who make the cut in Mark Leibovich’s just published acid-laced deconstruction of Washington, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital.

And yes there’s more on Valerie and Axelrod than the anecdotes included in my prepub blog on the New York Times reporter’s merciless and bestselling book.

David Axelrod: Leibovich obviously has a soft spot for “Axe,” and describes him as a “kibitzing walrus of a mensch who orchestrated Obama’s run to the 2008 democratic nomination.”  But Leibovich also portrays Axelrod as a “lovestruck groupie”; as embarrassingly head over heels in love with Obama; in a “swoon,” and quotes former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs as calling Axelrod, “the guy who walks in front of Obama with rose petals.” Bill Daley weighs in by calling Axelrod a “Moonie.” Anita Dunn, briefly the White House communications director, complains that Axelrod is not only “disorganized,” but is also “reluctant to `push back’ on the president in meetings.” 

Leibovich ferrets out disgruntled “White House insiders” who “believed Axelrod had become increasingly mindful of cultivating his public profile with an eye to his post-Obama celebrity life.”

Valerie Jarrett: Under Leibovich’s lens, Valerie Jarrett comes off as insecure and envious of Axelrod. When talking to Obama she would refer to Axelrod as “one of the political guys,” as opposed to her own status as “a personal custodian of the president’s lofty motives and gifts.” 

Leibovich quotes from a New York Times 2012 profile of Jarrett in which she orders a drink from a four-star general whom she mistook as a waiter. It was that profile that prompted the White House “Magic of Valerie” memo, intended to persuade reporters of Jarrett’s many unheralded virtues. The author of that absurd memo is deputy White House press secretary Jamie Smith, a native of Buffalo Grove.

Ray LaHood: Leibovich cribs from his own 2009 profile of LaHood, the Illinois republican congressman from Peoria whom Obama had just appointed to his cabinet as his secretary of transportation: “LaHood problematically acknowledged that he did not think the White House  `picked me because they thought I’d be that great a transportation person.’ In fact, he said, he was no expert on transportation issues and would have been just as happy to be named Secretary of Agriculture… LaHood went on to speculate that he got the job only because he had good relations with Republicans on the Hill and because he was tight with Rahm Emanuel….”

Robert Barnett: The Waukegan native turned Washington insider and lawyer/agent to presidents, first ladies, and top journalists, is portrayed as insufferably silly and self-centered, orgasmic at finding his name in Politico and especially in its offshoot email newsletter, “Mike Allen’s Playbook.” Leibovich writes that Barnett “loves the thrill of being at all the big parties and dinners and funerals.” Yes, funerals: in This Town, funerals are as fertile a networking opportunity as any gathering. Leibovich quotes from a Mike Allen Politico piece published on the “eve of the 2008 election” in which Allen—who comes off in the book as a total suck-up—includes Barnett’s name on a “short list of potential Obama appointments to the Supreme Court,” ahead of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Barnett loses points with Leibovich for as enthusiastically representing such Republicans as Karl Rove and Sarah Palin as he does Hillary ($8 million for her memoir) and Bill ($10 million for his). Barnett also represented President Obama in his 2006 deal to write The Audacity of Hope, and I’d be surprised if he’s not the guy eventually negotiating record big-bucks advances for Barack and Michelle Obama when they’re ready to write their memoirs. Barnett depends on journalists—and represents 375 of them—to promote his deals and his clients. 

Leibovich writes that Barnett was once described as “the doorman to the revolving door,” and he quotes a TV journalist calling Barnett a “walking conflict of interest,” but not allowing Leibovich to use her name because she plans to have Barnett negotiate her next book deal.

You can probably guess who’s representing Axelrod in his recently signed memoir deal.

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