By Walter Shapiro
When Robert Gibbs was preparing to step down as White House press secretary in early 2011, Barack Obama stressed to The New York Times that he understood the life pressures weighing heavily on his loyal aide. After all, the president said in a revealing comment, Gibbs has been “going 24/7 with relatively modest pay.”
Gibbs was making $172,200 a year on the public payroll in a bad economy, which was an income higher than 92 percent of all American families. But such is the bipartisan sense of martyrdom in Washington that almost no one questioned Gibbs’ intention to move to greener pastures while Obama was still in the White House.
So what is Private Citizen Gibbs up to these days?
He was was recently in Baku, Azerbaijan, along with David Plouffe (Obama’s 2008 campaign manager) and Jim Messina (who held the job in 2012). The Washington Post uncovered the reason behind the mid-May reunion in such an exotic locale: The three political operatives were paid five-digit fees to speak at a conference designed to burnish the image of a former Soviet republic with a dicey human rights record.
This is what the self-congratulatory idealism of the 2008 Obama campaign has come to—buckraking in Baku. It illustrates the enduring adage about political aides in D.C.: “They came to do good and stayed to do well.”
In today’s Washington, personal finances, especially the ethical compromises necessary to maintain them, remain a taboo subject. Small wonder that when Plouffe appeared Sunday as a guest on ABC’s “The Week,” Azerbaijan was never mentioned.
Plouffe has been down this road before. In late 2010, just a month before he entered the White House as a senior adviser to Obama, Plouffe was paid $100,000 to give two speeches in Lagos, Nigeria, by a South African telecommunications firm. The timing and the outlandish fee retain a fragrant aroma. But the Washington Post also discovered that the South African telecommunications firm has close business ties to Iran—connections that Plouffe denied knowing about.
The former Obama team’s excellent Azerbaijan adventure was revealed last Friday in a Washington Post story by Juliet Eilperin and Tom Hamburger. The article’s larger theme was that Obama alumni are benefitting in lucrative ways from their White House connections. But for all the outrage the story generated, it might as well have been posted on a lamppost in Baku instead of on the Post’s front page.
These days, charter members of the Obama alumni association are making their connections count. As the Post reports, veterans of the Obama White House are being paid by both sides to provide strategic consulting and public relations advice to try to influence the president's upcoming decision whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Given the stakes for the oil industry and the environmental movement in whether the Canada-to-Oklahoma pipeline is built, it is not surprising that Obama-ites have been so ardently recruited in the battle to win over their former boss.
Pipeline foe Bill Burton, a former White House deputy press secretary who went on to run the leading pro-Obama Super PAC in 2012, carefully explains, “We’re helping to run a public affairs campaign, which is different than acting as a lobbyist.”
That’s a distinction designed to appeal to an ethics lawyer or a White House press secretary. Obama ran against lobbyists in 2008, so his loyal alumni can’t practice those dark arts. But it is permissible, even laudable, to peddle insider knowledge of the White House in order to craft a PR strategy to win Obama over. In truth, whether they are lobbyists or strategic consultants, former White House officials are prospering from their perceived closeness to a sitting president.
The response from the Obama White House and loyal Democrats is both predictable and accurate—prior administrations, especially Republican ones, have been worse.
But no modern president (with the exception of Jimmy Carter) came to office with anything like the moral sanctimony of Obama and his closest advisers. And unlike other broken promises, from campaign reform to closing Guantanamo, the get-it-while-you-can ethos of Obama's former aides can't be blamed on the Republicans.
Cashing in on connections has a long political history. Tommy “The Cork” Corcoran, a leading member of the team of bright young lawyers advising Franklin Roosevelt, shocked his fellow New Dealers in 1941 by becoming a high-priced Washington fixer for business interests. Corcoran’s conduct was so notorious that a Senate committee soon held hearings on his quasi-legal “influence peddling.”
In the late 1970s, liberals felt betrayed when Fred Dutton, who had been a top adviser to Bobby Kennedy, suddenly went to work for Saudi Arabia as the kingdom’s Washington lawyer and official mouthpiece. Even pro-business Republicans were troubled when Michael Deaver, one of Ronald Reagan’s closest aides during his first term, posed for a 1986 Time cover as he made lobbying phone calls from the back of his limo. (Deaver, as it sadly turned out, was suffering from alcoholism at the time).
There is an important difference between the Washington of then and now. There was a sense of odium surrounding string-pullers like Corcoran who operated without any discernable moral compass. Every dubious dollar they earned was accompanied by a withdrawal from an account labeled “Respect.”
But over the years, Washington has lost any sense of shame. The standard bipartisan pattern has become to work for an important political figure for a few years—and then monetize your Rolodex. No longer is there any stigma or sense of embarrassment to setting up a Washington strategic consulting business and making sure that your clients see your wall of pictures with the president.
A few weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the bipartisan alumni association of former White House speechwriters called the Judson Welliver Society after Warren Harding’s pioneering wordsmith. (I wrote speeches for Carter.) In that room of ghostwriters, dating back to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, there was a profound and universally shared emotion—our White House years were an exhilarating moment that still shimmers through decades.
Working for a president—any president—should be regarded as a rare honor rather than as a business opportunity that will lead to lucrative connections. It is an enduring truth that the men and women who have prospered because of their close association with Obama should remember the next time they are offered first-class air tickets to Baku.
By Walter Shapiro