WASHINGTON – In the early days of the Obama administration, my Washington Post colleague Shailagh Murray and I used to trade tales of the arrogance of White House officials more interested in their insular club and the prestige of their positions than in the responsibility they had.
“They think they’re in the movie of their job,” she liked to say, and she was right: They acted as if they were playing themselves in “The West Wing.”
So it was with delight that I learned while vacationing this week that Murray had been named to the very highest level of officialdom in the White House. President Barack Obama appointed her senior adviser to the president, filling a position held over the past decade by Karl Rove, David Axelrod, David Plouffe and, most recently, Dan Pfeiffer.
It’s enjoyable to see a friend in such an exalted role, but Murray’s appointment is more than that: It gives hope that Obama is finally trying to break out of the insufferable insularity that has choked progress in his White House – and that he is at long last ready to reach out to Capitol Hill and to the media to make his case.
For far too long, this president has surrounded himself with yes men, living in a self-congratulatory world of affirmation. It’s late in his presidency, but it’s not too late to be administered a dose of reality.
I met Murray 20 years ago when she and her husband Neil King, now deputy Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, wrote for the Journal from Prague and I was a Journal correspondent in London. I later helped bring her to the Post. Along the way, we hosted a dance party on Capitol Hill ironically claiming to benefit the Robert Blake Legal Defense Fund and, at a 2008 debate between Obama and John McCain, we played a beer-drinking game of buzzword bingo in the filing center.
Murray joined the Obama administration in 2011 after Vice President Biden, whom she had covered for years in the Senate, asked her to be his communications director. She liked Biden – most of us who covered him on the Hill do – and she took the job even though she had no interest in being in the movie of her job. She doesn’t tweet or post on Facebook. When she was introduced at this year’s Gridiron dinner, she didn’t stand up. And she declined invites to next month’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner – the incestuous “prom” for reporters and their White House and celebrity guests.
Naturally, she had no interest in being interviewed for this column.
Murray is, in other words, admirably detached from the world of Washington egos. She is an outsider in temperament and is not ideological in the least. She used to work in a record store and a nightclub; she frequents D.C.’s 9:30 Club with her daughters, both products of Washington Catholic schools. Her Southern roots have left her with a strong interest in seeing that the first African-American president is a success, but Biden recruited Murray not because of her ideology or loyalty but because of her knowledge of the Hill and of the press.
Pfeiffer, a longtime Obama loyalist, had been cautious in the job, causing grumbling among colleagues because his risk aversion bottled up ideas and projects. He trashed and tried to circumvent the mainstream media, and he had little to do with lawmakers. But he fit well in a White House where top officials – Denis McDonough, Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice – had been with Obama since his first presidential campaign or earlier.
Murray, 49, is a much-needed antidote to all this. She takes risks, she has Capitol Hill wired (she was a longtime congressional reporter), and she recognizes that seeking new ways to get Obama’s message out does not mean shunning journalists. Her mandate is to use the next 22 months to cement Obama’s legacy so that his policies – Obamacare, particularly – endure beyond his presidency. She’ll also be helping to end this administration’s maddening pattern of having the president give a speech, then letting the issue drop while momentum is lost. And Murray is not about to join Obama’s coterie of sycophants; she has spent her career around the powerful and she won’t hesitate to tell him when he’s screwing up.
Obama likely would have achieved more if he had been surrounded earlier by more Shailagh Murrays and fewer aides who thought they were in the movie of their job. But better late than never.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.