By Anna Palmer
The first rule in Washington: loyalty.
Working in this town can be an ongoing test — defending a boss not only from prying journalists and rival lawmakers, but also themselves.
Several former staffers who’ve worked for lawmakers embroiled in scandal of all varieties told POLITICO that the unfolding tale of Gen. David Petraeus’ affair with his biographer, and a related story about Gen. John Allen’s flirtatious emailing with a married Florida woman, is a case study in the staffer-boss Washington code.
“You’ve got to fight like hell for your boss,” said Jim Manley, who helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) through a land deal scandal, “but it’s also important that you not lose sight of the bigger picture.”
“As a press secretary you are always fighting for as much information as possible when it comes to legislative issues, for instance, but at some point and time in a scandal you thank the Lord above the lawyers aren’t telling you everything,” Manley, who also served as press secretary to then-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). “You’ve got to trust your boss. You’ve got to trust the lawyers. I got lucky in both jobs with people that fit both of those descriptions.”
So far, the aides around Petraeus — known to have a circle of loyalists — and Allen have stood by the two men. On Tuesday, a senior official even did damage control for Allen Tuesday, telling The Washington Post there’s no way he had an affair.
It’s an experience that’s played out over and over in politics: Bosses engage in untoward behavior, but staff stands by them — even keeping their secrets. For some staffers, being on the clock even means acting as a minder at alcohol-fueled evening events.
Rep. Anthony Weiner’s questionable tweeting wasn’t outed by his circle. Aides to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford tried to cover up his affair with an Argentinian woman by saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Another said the governor was recharging after losing a fight over stimulus funds. Sen. David Vitter’s staff remained tight-lipped after the Louisiana Republican’s phone number was found on the D.C. Madam’s list.
Washington insiders say those reactions by staff aren’t a surprise.
“In a crisis atmosphere, there’s a sense of hyper-vigilance that kicks into the entire operation, where everyone is watching and bracing for the next incoming piece of information, while at the same time responding to the current atmosphere,” said veteran GOP communicator Ron Bonjean.
Bonjean is no stranger to defending bosses in precarious positions. He served as House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) spokesman when Hastert faced calls to step down when news of Foley’s inappropriate communications with House pages broke. Bonjean was also a top aide when Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was forced to step down as majority leader after making comments at Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) 100th birthday party that were perceived as racially insensitive.
“The key is to operate off all the facts you are given and to make it very clear with reporters and be very upfront and as transparent possible that this is the current environment you are working in,” Bonjean said.
Tamping down lawmakers engaged in inappropriate extracurricular activities has become more of a science than an art. Speaker John Boehner instituted a zero tolerance policy for bad behavior when he took power of the Republican conference, which was on display in February 2011 when Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) resigned just hours after a suggestive photo he sent of himself to a woman on the internet became public.
What is often inside the Beltway cocktail circuit gossip — a lawmaker’s overly flirtatious behavior in the office, excessive indulgence with booze, or extracurricular relationships — doesn’t make it beyond the inner circle, or if it does the Washington journalist set rarely pursues it.
Part of the discretion is practical. A staffer’s fate is tied to the success of their current — and former — bosses.
“I think those things tend to be known,” said one former GOP aide. “Folks tend to have a loyalty to their bosses whether or not they agree with that sort of behavior.”
And, often times curtailing inappropriate behavior, or flagrant public misdeeds falls to senior staff. In one instance, the former GOP aide recalls telling a state-level lawmaker who was married to try and squash comments his girlfriend was making to staff.
And there is a price to pay when confidants do come forward. Former mega lobbyist Jeff Connaughton recently wrote a tell-all book “The Pay-off” that spares nothing when it comes to his former boss Vice President Joe Biden, whom he describes as an “egomaniacal autocrat.” Connaughton only went public after leaving Washington for Georgia.
Former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is a rare exception where his former top aide Doug Hampton wrote to Fox News of an affair the Nevada Republican had with Hampton’s wife. Rep. Laura Richardson (R-Calif.) also was outed by staff who went to the House Ethics Committee over issues concerning making them do political work while on the Congressional dime.
Sometimes entire institutions can come under fire. The Republican National Committee under Michael Steele had more than its share of scandals — from misuse of finances, to a racy donor event at a gentleman’s club, among others.
“At one point, I said, ‘My job is not to promote you, my job is to protect you,’” one GOP aide at the RNC during the Steele tenure said.
Once the scandal becomes public, the strategy is fairly routine — seal off the lawmaker, create separation from the facts and then get ahead of the story by releasing information that is going to get it out to friendly strategists.
And while, having an affair was not necessarily a reason for throwing someone out of office in years past, the news culture has made that more difficult.
“The culture of Washington is changed to a public zero tolerance policy,” Bonjean said. “Anything that was perceived as 10 years ago as something that could be glossed over that isn’t the case anymore.”
Manley attributed a big change to Twitter and blogs. “It’s much more difficult to a, get away with these things and b, stay in your seat.”