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How to kiss up in D.C.? Clinton e-mails offer guide

Provide a primer in how D.C. works

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democratic presidential hopeful, spoke at the Iowa State Fair last month.Eric Thayer/New York Times

WASHINGTON — The correspondence arrived as Hillary Rodham Clinton was preparing for a trip to Prague. It read as if it were penned by a paramour.

“I love you,” wrote ad guru Roy Spence. “I respect you. I miss you. I cherish every moment of our remarkable journey together.”

But it wasn’t evidence of some inappropriate dalliance. Far from it. The message was just part of the daily Washington game of seeking attention from important people.

And, shocker, it worked. Clinton asked a staff member to print it out.

Normally a thick layer of grime, applied by this town’s legions of image-makers, prevents the public from seeing through the windows of Washington’s most important offices and obscures the kissing up, fawning, and groveling that occurs daily in the capital. But a federal judge’s order forcing the State Department to release Clinton’s e-mails has, like a spurt of Windex, cleared a little corner of the pane.

Lanny DavisGetty Images for Meet the Press

The thousands of pages of Clinton’s correspondence that crossed her unorthodox private server while she reigned as secretary of state offer a textbook on how official Washington communicates. For political junkies it’s a trove of insight not unlike the hacked Sony e-mails or messages from Wall Street traders that have leaked out during litigation.


Uppercase compliments abound. Clinton is “FANTASTIC” on TV. She is “SUPERB.” Some messages are so laudatory they don’t even make sense. “Since your appearance on the scene, things have caught amazing speed and vertigo,” wrote one fan.

Themes quickly emerge. Mostly, it’s that the writers want — need! — some favor that will boost their standing in this power-centric city.

First thing to remember: When seeking help in self-promotion, it’s important to add some kind of wink. The reason for the cultural tic, according to one D.C. insider, is that nobody wants to openly admit garnering media attention is really important.


“You have to act like it doesn’t matter,” said the person. “You have to act like you have power whether or not you are in the paper.”

Bob Barnett (left).Getty Images for Conde Nast

That’s why Washington attorney Lanny Davis includes an obligatory “ugh!” when explaining that American Lawyer, a must-read magazine in the legal community, was writing a “cover story” about a law firm he was starting.

He hoped Clinton would provide a positive quote and — despite that “ugh! —pulled out every argument he could think of to persuade her to talk for the story. There was their long relationship. Their shared ties to Yale Law School. There’s some hint of financial strain related to upcoming tuition costs for children. And, there is the fact that, outside his immediate family, he considers Clinton “my best friend and the best person I have met in my long life.”

“Please please please — note there are three pleases,” Davis wrote. (He went on to add a fourth please later.)

Davis, who worked for President Bill Clinton in the White House, said in an interview that he stands by every bit of his 945-word entreat to the secretary of state. “I think it’s a great e-mail,” Davis said. “I don’t get all of this hyperfocus of what is a cynical view of even friendship.”

Super lawyer Bob Barnett hit the same note of mild irritation over media attention when the Washington Post, this town’s most important newspaper, sought to write about him for a feature in the paper’s Style section. “A reporter for the WP, is (God help me) doing a profile of me,” he wrote.


Democratic strategist Paul Begala.Getty Images for Meet the Press

In this case Clinton not only spoke to the reporter, she asked that a transcript of the conversation be sent to Barnett so he could see for himself what she said.

This brings us to another important point: It’s not good enough in Washington to just publicly say laudatory things about an important person. Washington insiders must make sure their words have been noticed.

Democratic consultant Paul Begala e-mailed the State Department the day after participating in a CNN special report. “I gave Sec. Clinton an A+ in our dopey CNN report card last night,” Begala wrote to top Clinton aide Cheryl Mills. “So did Donna Brazile. The only two A+s of the night.”

Karen Finney knows the rules, too. She e-mailed three of Clinton’s top aides a link to an MSNBC hit where she praised Clinton. “This is a clip from a discussion I did last week about whether or not she’s being marginalized — as if!” wrote Finney, who was at the time a Democratic strategist.

Finney is now a staffer on Clinton’s campaign. That puts her in another category: The underling.

Much can be learned from the Clinton e-mails about being an underling — and a key ingredient is to stay positive.

“Whenever you do something big on TV we all hear from lots of folks saying you did great. But this time was noticeably different,” wrote Philippe Reines, one of Clinton’s top communications aides. This time people were “blown away” and “three people even told me they teared up,” Reines wrote.


This exuberance toward the principal is not all about sycophancy, explained Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who has worked for a host of top politicians, including 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“Keeping the boss in a good place and a productive place requires a healthy amount of encouraging and mood setting,” he said.

Staff can form very deep bonds with their bosses and co-workers in high government positions, Madden said. They miss birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs working 18-hour days for their boss.

It helps explain some of the raw emotion that poured out from David Helfenbein when he made a seemingly agonizing decision in June 2010 to leave his perch at the State Department.

“You are one of a kind,” he wrote to Clinton. “There is no other one like you, and there never will be. I truly believe that the world needs you in whatever capacity that you are in.”

Even if you’re the secretary of state, your job will include some kissing up, too.

Clinton found that out in September 2010, doing the bidding of former British prime minister Tony Blair in order to get him to join a diplomatic mission. His participation involved breaking plans to appear at a conference in Aspen, Colo., with the famed Rothschild family.

Blair wanted Clinton to be the one to deliver the bad news that he’d have to skip the engagement.


She complied, telling her friend Lynn Forester de Rothschild that Blair was blowing off the event at her request. Clinton added: “Let me know what penance I owe you.”

After de Rothschild wrote back, Clinton coolly forwarded the entire thread to Blair.

“Tony,” she wrote, “Message delivered.”

Annie Linskey can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.