Obama's White House 20-Somethings 'Reign Over' D.C. Social Scene

A Sunday Magazine profile of Obama's young, hip staffers by Ashley Parker takes after MTV in its headine: "The Real World: 44." (Obama is the 44th president.) The alternate headline was more specific: "All the Obama 20-Somethings." Clearly the Times finds this new batch of idealists a welcome change from the stuffy, preppy Bushies, and Parker fawns over them, obviously comfortable in their presence and generous in her descriptions:


President Obama's young staff and their senior counterparts mix seamlessly and often sweetly. During the primaries, Axelrod once dropped by a party at the Pad - a group house in Chicago where seven campaign staff members lived, worked and played the video game Rock Band. The rumpled, over-50 "Axe," as nearly everyone calls him, impressed the crowd by playing a game of beer pong. Now in Washington, he still makes the rare appearance at parties for junior staff members. When friends of the 31-year-old deputy communications director, Jen Psaki, gave her an afternoon engagement party at the Cork wine bar near Logan Circle, Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, and Axelrod came by, arriving with Lesser.

Parker prefers this hip batch of aides to the stodgy ones of the Bush White House (that is, when they're not "tabloid fodder" like the Bush twins).

Even so, Obama's young aides offer a contrast to the ones who worked in George W. Bush's administration only a few years ago. Bush promised to "restore dignity to the White House," and the mood inside the administration was subdued from the start, with a reinstated dress code that encouraged women to wear pantyhose. As Matt Latimer observed in his account of his years as a Bush speechwriter, "Speech-Less," there was no hint of Aaron Sorkin's "West Wing" sexiness. "We were more like Rob Lowe's cousins," he wrote, "the ones who didn't go out much." When they did go out, Johndroe says, they stuck to creaky haunts close to the White House like Old Ebbitt Grill or bars in the historically preppy enclave of Georgetown. "The Daily Grill was the place to go on Thursday nights, in Georgetown, and then people would go to Smith Point," Johndroe said, referring to the basement bar known for sightings of the Bush twins and its unofficial uniform of popped collars, boat shoes (no socks) and salmon-colored khakis for the men, pearls and Lilly Pulitzer for the women. The president's daughters were perhaps the city's most visible revelers, and their late-night escapades around town became tabloid fodder. (Johndroe, for the record, says he now spends more time on the U Street corridor.)

Because it's important for presidential staffers to be hip.

The young staff members in the Obama White House have not only helped create a new social scene but also nonchalantly reign over it. Washington, always known as "Hollywood for Ugly People," is now Hollywood, period. Jon Favreau landed on People magazine's most-beautiful-people list and Time magazine's Top 100 most-influential-people list in the same week. Other staff members found themselves ranked in GQ and Maxim, and in fashion spreads in Vanity Fair and Elle. Sam Kass, a 30-year-old White House assistant chef with movie-star looks, was also named one of People magazine's 100 most-beautiful people in 2009. He sometimes is teased by his co-workers with the nickname "100." The actress Rashida Jones came to Washington for the White House Correspondents Dinner and left romantically linked to Favreau. Kal Penn, who is 33, traded his Hollywood career in the "Harold and Kumar" movies and in Fox's "House" for a comparatively low-paying job as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

And would the Times have treated this incident as a "silly blog sensation" if it had been a Republican staffer groping a cutout of Hillary Clinton?

People gripe about staff assistants who, they feel, have received un-deserved press coverage, the ones who didn't start out in Iowa but still landed a plum job, like the person in the next cubicle who has the same portfolio but makes more money. They are careful, however, not to complain too loudly. They have already learned lessons the hard way. When a Washington Post reporter first e-mailed Favreau about a Facebook picture of him groping a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton, he couldn't believe it; he never even put the picture up online (a friend from home had naïvely posted it). But the story became a silly blog sensation during the 2008 campaign, and Favreau had to apologize to Clinton. The incident was a psychological turning point for Obama's staff. Several of them started defriending reporters from their Facebook accounts and internalized the lesson that everyone in Washington eventually learns: nothing is private; everything is on the record.

Judging by fawning profiles like this, Obama staffers should have little reason to fear embarrassing coverage of their personal foibles.

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