The White House School of Hard Knocks: All of Obama’s Young Players


Yo, NYC Yaliens, step your game up: The kids working in the Obama administration are the definitive post-grads, and the subject of a massive New York Times magazine feature today entitled, “All the Obama 20-Somethings.”

They’re charged with organizing the lives of the establishment Old Guard, writing the president’s speeches and “deciding how much brown sugar [David Axelrod] can have in his oatmeal.” Then, they dance to Jay-Z. The piece seems to be making a case for D.C. as the definitive spot for ambitious youth — a foil to New York City — and the go-to locale for overachievers. Calling the Obamas “the first White House family in modern memory to treat Washington like an actual city,” the administration’s twenty-somethings have followed suit. It’s a hip new world, but it’s tough, too: “They are learning that Washington often changes you more than you change it.” Coming of age in Obama’s Washington — it makes for a great tale.

The piece is bristling with energy, as these stories of elite idealists tend to be.

The cast of characters includes Herbie Ziskend, 24, “who once handled luggage for Barack Obama’s campaign and now works in the vice president’s office as a staff assistant”; Jake Levine, 26, “a policy analyst in the energy-and-climate-change office”; Eric Lesser, 25, “David Axelrod’s moon-faced, sweet-tempered special assistant” and also a onetime baggage boy; Obama’s chief speechwriter, 28-year-old Jon Favreau; and behold, a woman! Alejandra Campoverdi, “the 30-year-old special assistant to the White House deputy chief of staff for policy.”

Written by Times Magazine virgin Ashley Parker, she discloses interestingly that one of her subjects “is dating one of my housemates. They met while I was reporting this story and began seeing each other shortly thereafter.” She doesn’t mention, though, that she profiled him last June.

In a way, it’s a glamorous life. “Washington, always known as “Hollywood for Ugly People,” is now Hollywood, period,” Parker writes. Sounds familiar. On the other hand, they sound quite nerdy and spend a lot of time on their BlackBerrys! But it’s endearing overall. (At one point, one orders a “virgin orange juice,” and he does so “earnestly.” Aw.) They play a lot of video games. Some sports, too.

And yet, as a young veteran of the W. White House describes, with today’s technology comes risk:

“In ’01 when we got here, no one had BlackBerries, no one texted, no Twitter, and there were a lot less digital cameras. Now, before you know it, you’re texting someone at 3 a.m. — never a good idea — and the next day a picture of you doing God only knows what is up on someone’s Facebook page.”

To that end, Gawker gets a supporting role in the article, thanks to the outing of Alejandra Campoverdi as a Maxim model and the girlfriend of speechwriter Favreau.

But the incestuous nature of it all is no surprise. These kids are the future — a tight clique — required to mingle with one another, and also with the Old Guys. But this is how it works and how you get ahead. Think, for example, of Dark Lord Dick Cheney, a congressional intern at age 28, an early pal of Donald Rumsfeld and a D.C. fixture forevermore. (Imagine how many of the same women they’ve been with.)

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.

“Showing up to work each day at the most prestigious address in America can feel a bit like finals week in college,” Parker writes. She means it’s busy? “The young staff members in Obama’s White House have grown more comfortable and confident, reshaping the city around them in their image — idealistic, earnest, geeky, understated, wise-cracking.”

(Side note: Is this headline — “All the Obama 20-Somethings” — a reference to Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men? Hm.)

Though at times meandering, the story also attempts to wedge in a universal take, offering that the D.C. kids’ “long days are like those faced by many young, ambitious people in Washington and elsewhere — the long hours, the late-night requests, the unforeseen surprises and stresses.”

But perhaps the most apt assessment comes in one young person’s description of the way Obama is considered by a group that was once his most visible and fervent supporters:

The Obama campaign, one young West Wing staff member said, was a romantic “crush” full of jitters, firsts and ups and downs. Governing, on the other hand, “is like the way you love your girlfriend” — meaningful, but often more taxing and frustrating.

Anthropologically, though, the piece works as a time capsule. There’s no doubt that those of these kids who feel like holding on (and can resist moving to New York or L.A. to have more fun), will make it. Their trajectories are set, if they want it. And someday, when one (or all of them) is jaded and corrupt — aka running for office — we’ll be able to Google this piece and remember when everything seemed so promising.