This Week’s Beltway Soap Opera: Can Steve Ricchetti Overcome Divided Loyalties And Find True Power?

As regular readers know, I am not in Charlie Pierce’s camp in thinking Politico is invariably a mockery of real journalism. Somebody has to do snail’s-eye Washington reporting, and they do it well, along with some increasingly substantive offerings in their “magazine” and several new sub-sections.

But I must say, after reading Edward-Isaac Devore’s piece yesterday on vice-presidential staffer Steve Ricchetti, I can see why Charlie is sometimes driven to referring to Politico as Tiger Beat on the Potomac.

The piece in question is an exhaustive discussion of the perennial cooked-up will-he-or-won’t-he-run-for-president Biden story, but told strictly from the POV of how it affects Biden’s chief of staff. Ricchetti, you see, used to work for Bill Clinton, lived in “exile” as the founder of a lobbying firm who had “cashed in” on his presidential service, and then worked for Hillary Clinton, in 2008, and was cast into the outer darkness in 2008 for real or imagined sins against the Clintons. Oh how he’s suffered! so much that he crawled back into the federal government via the “demotion” of working for Biden!

Ricchetti spent years trying to work his way back from excommunication, and Bill Clinton’s started talking to him again, though never with the same closeness. All the while, he was trying to get back into the game in the Obama administration — while David Plouffe and other senior advisers to President Barack Obama repeatedly blocked him because they figured he’d be too loyal to the Clintons, dead-set about violating their lobbyist ban for him and wary that he’d just turn around and leak on them too.
He tried to get into the West Wing. He tried to get in as Leon Panetta’s chief of staff. Biden heard that he was on the market — “if you ask me when’s the first time we met Steve or when we got to know Steve, I couldn’t tell you,” Kaufman said, “it’s just like we’ve always known Steve” — and pounced.

Has the drama got you yet? I’m not a Downton Abbey watcher, but I doubt it can compare to Ricchetti’s story as a gripping saga of backstairs intrigue and status-climbing.

These days, Ricchetti is all over the West Wing, inspiring a mostly genial but exasperated hands-thrown-up, Richetti’s-always-just-Ricchetti response from Obama staffers trying to figure out what he’s ever up to, about Biden’s 2016 plans or anything else.

Ricchetti declined an interview request. People who know him say that after spending his career trying to be a background player, he hates the idea of a whole article about him.

Yeah, and rock stars hate fanzines and groupies, too, doncha know.

You’re left with the impression that Biden’s possible presidential aspirations–and with them, the possible fate of the Democratic Party and indeed the United States–are but a subplot in the Ricchetti story of success and failure and then redemption in the magical world of Washington.

Maybe it’s because I’m a former long-time staffer myself (one who did not, however, “cash in” with some lobbying gig), but this sort of “story” makes my skin crawl. One of the dirtiest of little secrets in the world of politics and government is how much contempt a lot of staff people have for their principals. On the rare occasions I’ve felt this way, I’ve tried to remind myself that the very worst of politicians got a lot more votes than I ever had. I don’t know Ricchetti, and it’s possible he didn’t have a thing to do with Devore’s piece. But he might want to make sure his boss has no reason to doubt the “Biden Story” is Biden’s.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.