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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

In the Situation Room with Obama, Bill Daley Dressed for the Occasion

One powerful photo of a Sunday afternoon scene in the White House Situation Room dominated the news yesterday. Captured by White House photographer Pete Souza, the image shows the president, vice president, and Obama’s national security team gazing off-camera at video feed of the bloody mission to kill Osama bin Laden. But it was Obama’s Chief of Staff, Bill Daley, who…

President Obama and members of his national security team watch video feed of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday, May 1, 2011 In the Situation Room of the White House

One powerful photo of a Sunday afternoon scene in the White House Situation Room dominated the front pages of the Sun-Times and the Tribune yesterday, accompanied by nearly identical headlines trumpeting the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALS. Captured by White House photographer Pete Souza, the image shows the president, vice president, and Obama’s national security team gazing off-camera at video feed of the bloody, 40-minute raid on bin Laden’s unlikely hideout in a mansion/compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 

Obama is hunched over, his jaws tightened and eyes filled with worry; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks horrified, her hand covering her mouth. Everyone’s expression is grave. 

But, having steeped myself since Sunday night in the intense coverage of the daring assault that took out America’s most reviled terrorist, I must have been ready to think about something else—something trivial to be sure, but still reflective of the man in the scene who caught my eye: Obama’s Chief of Staff, Bill Daley. There he is in the photo, buttoned up in a jacket and tie, standing beside his friend, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who is dressed in shirtsleeves.

The contrast between Daley and his boss is even more striking. Having come to the Situation Room after playing nine holes of golf in Maryland, Obama is still wearing his navy blue windbreaker and white polo shirt. A few folks are wearing shirts and ties, but their jackets are hanging elsewhere.

But not Bill Daley. I’ve written about him often over the years (including a detailed profile), and the above photo brought to mind how the sources I interviewed—whether they worked for him in Al Gore’s presidential campaign or the Commerce Department or elsewhere—often described him as the most consistent character: impeccably controlled, and, to match, impeccably groomed. 

Bill is a stark contrast to his brother, Richard Daley; if the outgoing mayor is the “unmade bed,” then Bill is strictly “hospital corners.” Donna Brazile, Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, told me that when the then-VP moved his operation from Washington to an industrial storefront in Nashville, Daley maintained his “very executive style… formal, dignified.” (Brazile did not intend that as a compliment; she found Daley too removed from the grassroots; more attention to them, she said, might have given Gore the margin he needed to win.)

The photo also took me back to a hot, humid Friday in the summer of 2004, when I visited Daley’s cavernous Loop office—he was then Midwest chairman of JPMorgan Chase—thinking he’d be observing casual Friday. Instead, I found him in a monogrammed tab-collar shirt and Hermes tie, French cuffs secured by gold cufflinks, fingernails manicured, and not a hair on his gray fringe astray—very much how he looks in Souza’s photo.

There’s something poignant about Daley’s style. In the tough couple of years of the Obama administration leading up to this transforming victory, it’s been said often that what’s needed in the White House is an adult.

There stood Daley, staring straight ahead in his blue suit and tie, in a photo that will be studied for years to come.

 

Photograph: Pete Souza/The White House

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