Readers of The New York Times and The Washington Post opened their papers Thursday to find strikingly similar articles about President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, retired four-star Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr.
Funny coincidence — coming seemingly at random after 108 days in office. The stories, which featured some of the same anecdotes, weren’t pegged to any particular event or policy but, rather, focused on his management style.
And in all likelihood, their convergence was hardly a coincidence at all.
The echoing articles offer a window into perennial efforts by White Houses to manage the portrayal of West Wing insiders. In this case, the results were mixed: Both papers had been given interviews, and some of the most discordant quotes came from Jones himself.
It’s a standard Washington ritual to make top officials available in an effort to dilute or derail a potentially damaging story line. Even the most seasoned reporters who’ve been listening to outsiders or rivals bad-mouth a top official inevitably temper their stories after a sit-down with the subject — if for no other reason than the final product has a healthy dose of positive quotes directly from the official.
That was clearly the White House’s hope here. For weeks, Democratic insiders had been buzzing that Jones was strangely absent from key meetings, leaving to deputies the "staffing" of Obama — the delicate task of sitting with the president and shepherding national security meetings, large and small.
“That's very unusual,” said a Clinton administration veteran. “The way that staff has always run is the deputy runs the council day to day, and the [national security adviser] is in with the president all day.”
Chatter like that could have led to a broader perception on Capitol Hill and with the public at large that Jones is ineffectual or out of the loop. So what looked on the surface like a publicity offensive by Jones on Thursday was likely more of a publicity defensive — an effort to contain a PR brushfire before it becomes a blaze.
The White House provided an interview to the Times’ Helene Cooper on Monday, and to the Post’s Karen DeYoung on Tuesday. Both are veteran diplomatic reporters, well-known in press and foreign policy circles. (On Wednesday, Jones gave a briefing from the press room podium on Obama’s meetings that day with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan.)
The resulting stories helped underscore the difficulty that Jones — who once held the rarefied titles supreme allied commander Europe and commandant of the Marine Corps — has had adjusting to the insular Obama operation. In this case, the media strategy might have backfired a bit, because some of the clearest examples of Jones’ troubles fitting in were evident in his own words.
“I'm not only an outsider,” he told the Post, “but I'm a 20-years-older-than-anybody-around outsider.”
The articles included accounts of Jones occasionally biking home to suburban Virginia for lunch, speaking distantly of the "Obama Nation" campaign hands who are now his colleagues, and deriding those fellow aides who put in longer hours than he does.
“Congratulations. To me, that means you’re not organized,” he told the Times.
"That was not the profile they were looking for of their national security adviser," said one prominent Democrat and Obama ally, barely suppressing a laugh.
Steve Clemons of New America Foundation, who writes the foreign policy blog The Washington Note, said Jones had blundered by criticizing his colleagues who work past 7 p.m.
"It was a mistake to make that kind of statement,” Clemons said. “The world is complex. Los of stuff is happening.”
Clemons, noting the remarkable congruence between the articles, said: "There seems to be a campaign to dislodge him.”
A senior administration official rejected the idea that Jones sat for the interviews to silence whispers about his performance, portraying the conversations as a chance for "two respected diplomatic correspondents" to interview the national security adviser.
"We're not trying to fend off any buzz," the official said, with a dismissive emphasis on the last word.
Nevertheless, the career military officer is clearly struggling to find his footing in a White House with staffers who have retained their campaign metabolism and enjoy longstanding relationships with the president.
Jones did not take sides in the presidential race, offering advice to Obama as well as to Sen. John McCain and now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Until Wednesday’s briefing, Jones had been largely invisible, rarely seen on TV and without anything approximating the profile of past national security advisers. In recent weeks, talk has increased among in-the-know Democrats and some in the media that Jones was not faring well.
Joe Klein wrote deep in a long essay in the April 23 issue of Time magazine on Obama’s 100 days that, according to several sources, “Jones seems to attend meetings rather than lead them.”
Around the same time, Laura Rozen wrote on Foreign Policy’s blog, The Cable: “Several sources have in recent weeks described Jones as having a problematic tenure at the [National Security Council], a subject that no one there has wanted to discuss or would provide comment on.”
Then, Obama brought Jones with him on a quick there-and-back trip to Missouri last week for a town hall meeting on his 100th day in office, contributing to the sense that the president was trying to bolster Jones’ standing.
Clemons — who praised Jones' efforts to review and reform foreign policy processes — said people close to former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, a Jones ally, had been "communicating to Jim that you’ve gotta be in the room with the president."
According to sources who have worked directly with Jones, he occasionally seems subdued and even disengaged — in a position where he's supposed to pull together input from top administration officials and present options to the president.
"It's like he's waiting for orders to take the hill when his job is to come up with a battle plan," said one GOP senator, who said members of Congress had seen little of Jones. "In an administration of some pretty powerful personalities, he seems like the odd man out."
One official who has dealt with Jones said that he appeared to view the job of running the NSC as akin to being a CEO — someone who stood over the bureaucracy, setting broad direction and aligning the organization’s structure.
Jones, the official noted, presides over principals’ meetings but often refrains from offering his own views in debates with Clinton and other top national security officials. The former general also sometimes seems to have little interest in the more political aspects of his job, including dealing directly with members of Congress.
Another official said Obama aides routinely had to sidestep their own national security adviser.
"The system is full of workarounds to cut Jones out of the loop and keep the business of government running," said the official.
The senior administration official said that Jones was only delegating power to other members of the NSC.
"It's very fair to say that General Jones empowers his team," explained the official, saying his style is not only good for morale but also consistent with the "Obama management style."
Further, this official argued, Jones has been effective at churning out polcy that is sound and represents the well-thought-out views of administration officials across agency lines.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey lavished praise on his friend, calling him "not only a policy maven but an international figure of huge respect." And he suggested that the sniping may be only natural toward somebody "who can pick up the phone regardless of what his title is and get the [leaders of] Syria or France on the phone."
Dan Senor of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq under President George W. Bush, said the administration's top-heavy national security structure might have hampered Jones under any circumstances.
"The advantage of having an army of presidential envoys is that you get high-caliber 'regional secretaries of state' to focus on big problems," Senor said. "But … the structure can quickly diminish the role the national security adviser."
And the Clinton administration veteran said “the four-star factor” helped explain why Jones feels out of place.
“Those guys get treated like medium-sized heads of state,” the veteran said. “They have helicopters and planes and cooks and advance guys and security teams. So he's not used to being a staff guy.”