[Washington Babylon ]Desiree Rogers and the Danger of the Beat Sweetener | Harper's Magazine

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[Washington Babylon]

Desiree Rogers and the Danger of the Beat Sweetener


Poor Desiree Rogers. A victim of the Salahi State Crashing affair, she’s now out as White House social secretary, replaced by fundraiser Julianna Smoot. When she took the job a year ago, press accounts treated Rogers as a social phenom and a rising star within the Obama administration.

No one was more glowing in their praise of Rogers than the Washington Post. An item in the newspaper last year described her as the “most influential event planner on the planet, a woman empowered to use 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to set the cultural tone for the Obama era.” Her great strength, the article noted (insert ironic eye wink here), was that “No detail escapes her eye.”

That was then. Now that Rogers has been shit-canned there’s no point in wasting time currying favor with her in hopes of getting a good quote for your next story (a process known as the “beat sweetener”). So a new Post story, announcing Smoot’s appointment, says that “Roger’s departure had been widely expected after the fallout from the state dinner incident. Rogers had been criticized for paying too little attention to the specifics of party planning and for viewing herself as a participant, rather than as a member of the staff.”

Of course, Smoot now gets the royalty treatment, with reporter Anne Kornblut writing, “former campaign aides said they expected Smoot to fit more easily into the role. In the appointment announcement, Susan Sher, the chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, said Smoot brings ‘extraordinary organization and people skills’ to the job, as well as ‘sharp attention to detail.'” Sound familiar?

The most egregious beat sweetener of the Obama years was also written by Kornblut, a love poem in honor of Jim Messina, deputy White House chief of staff. Messina, Kornblut wrote, was “a key ‘fixer’ in the operation — both because of his extensive ties to political operatives and lawmakers, especially in the Senate, and because of his relentless focus of purpose that mirrors that of his immediate superior, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.”

The story was one of those classic Washington suck-up pieces that get written about political operatives dating back to Lee Atwater, through James Carville and Karl Rove, and continuing with Rahm Emanuel, which invariably attributes near superhuman powers to these partisan functionaries. Kornblut’s piece on Messina cited a series of friendly sources raving about Messina’s genius and even credited him with single-handedly bringing down the Bush administration:

Messina’s most renowned feat on Capitol Hill was straight out of Emanuel’s no-holds-barred playbook, and it came shortly after President George W. Bush was reelected in 2004. With Democrats still in the minority and frustrated by their inability to block the Republican president or his congressional allies, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) tapped Messina’s boss, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), to run a strategic effort to defeat a top legislative priority of Bush’s second term, the partial privatization of Social Security.

As Baucus’s chief of staff, Messina helped craft a message that was simple and straightforward, arguing that the Bush plan was risky and would cut benefits. His critics in the opposition party saw it as misleading at best, but it worked. The plan stalled quickly, and its defeat was credited by some for setting the Republicans on the path to losing control of Congress in the next midterm elections. “Messina stepped in and delivered a beat-down sandwich, and in my view, it was the beginning of the end of Bush’s approval ratings,” said Barrett Kaiser, Baucus’s communications director and a close friend of Messina.

Yep, if not for Jim Messina Bush might still be president.

Like other profiles of Messina, the story practically made a virtue out of the fact that Messina is universally regarded as nasty, mean, and vindictive. It said he “has a long memory for disloyalty — and does not tolerate ineptitude, or being crossed,” but softened that by talking up his loyalty “and soft-spot” for friends.

According to a source who knows Messina well, he actually kept an “enemies list” on an external hard drive when he worked for Baucus. Just the sort of guy you want in charge of White House personnel decisions.

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