Queen of Suck-Up City

How the Obama administration fell prey to a very determined operator

by Mark Leibovich | July 16, 2013

photo credit: Getty

Outside the Newseum, the magnificent Tammy Haddad was surveying the snaking queue of people waiting to get into the party. It was the signature D.C. event on the eve of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, a lavish affair hosted by Arianna Huffington, and Haddad kept pulling worthies out of line, declaring her D.C. chosens in real time.

The Tamster is one of those people of whom it is often wondered: What exactly does she do? A former cable producer, in recent years she has blasted a place for herself in the city: a professional party host, event organizer, and full-service convener of the Washington A-list. She is impossible to miss, if not resist—six feet tall, with black hair bisected by a white streak. “Hi, doll!” she will boom, and, “You just have to meet the supertalented author. Come with me.” Next thing you know, you’re across the room, part of a scrum waiting to meet the supertalented author. As you wait, Tammy holds court, going on about how Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s economic adviser, is such a total sweetheart, and how you have to meet him, too, and how Arianna was just telling her something or other. (Some time after the Newseum event, Haddad would throw a party to celebrate Huffington’s book on America’s dying middle class, Third World America, with specially embroidered third world america pillows.) At another party of hers that I attended, Tammy rushed over to me and the guy I was talking to and announced: “ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! I JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE WITH HER DAUGHTER!”

Haddad’s signature accoutrement is a little video camera she carries around, called the “Tam Cam.” She walks up to people she knows—and who, by extension, matter—and initiates little interviews, which she will often put online. The interviews are generally quick and painless, if somewhat intrusive, “like a light enema,” in the words of one friend/victim. “My job is to be around the most successful people, the most up-and-coming people, and the people who have impact,” Tammy told me. This group has always existed in Washington, but now it is big enough to contain an entire subeconomy.

I first heard the term “Suck-up City” from a top Obama adviser during the 2008 campaign. Sucking up is as basic to Washington as humidity. It has never been easier for “strategists” and “consultants” and “agents” of all stripes to affix themselves like barnacles to the local money barge, sucking in green nutrients. In recent years, Washington has become a crucible of easy wealth, fame, forgiveness, and next acts. Punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling, accompanied by a mad dash of “self-branding,” to borrow a term that has now fully infested the city. They gather, all the brands, at self-reverential festivals like the April White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, whose lineup of “pre-parties” and “after-parties” now approaches two dozen—because a single banquet cannot properly celebrate the full achievements of the People Who Run Your Country. Apart from the Tam Cam, Haddad is best known for the A-list brunch she throws on the day of the dinner. She is a human ladle in the local self-celebration buffet.

The Obama followers were determined to resist the seductions of Suck-up City. They offered themselves as incorruptible canaries who would fly above the filthy flattery mines of D.C. They would stay humble and focused on their work. The president and his people declared themselves consistently above the “insider Washington” game.

But “insider Washington” is much more pervasive than it used to be. The elite dinner-party salons of Georgetown used to include a revolving class of a few hundred power brokers, wealthy socialites, and current and former members of Congress, the Cabinet, and White House staff, along with a smattering of ambassadors and big-shot journalists. Today’s insider Washington has become a sprawling “conversation” in which tens of thousands partake by tweet, blog, or whatever. Standards of local “celebrity” have dropped through the floor. And while the capital used to be a transient culture, almost no one leaves here anymore. Better to stay and monetize an identity in the humming self-perpetuation machine. Washington may not serve the country well, but it works splendidly for Washington itself. And no one illustrates that better than Haddad, who has deftly ensconced herself into an Obama World that once vowed to avoid precisely her ilk of D.C. socialite.

  •  With George Clooney.
  • With Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen.
  • With Arianna Huffington.
  • With actors Daniel Radcliffe and Goldie Hawn.
  • With Wolf Blitzer.
  • With President Obama and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham.
  • With the Axelrods and the Murdochs.
  • With actress Rosario Dawson.
  • With “Mad Men” actress Jessica Pare.
  • With former White House Social Secretary Capricia Marshall.
  • With the Jonas Brothers.
  • With Charlie Rose (and the Tam Cam).
  • With Model Kate Upton and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.
  • With Actress Michelle Dockery of “Downton Abbey.”
  •  With former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.
  • With Hilary Rosen and friend-of-Oprah, Gayle King.

Shortly before the first Obama inauguration, The New York Times published a story on what Washington hosts were doing to attract the new president and first lady to their parties. “The social question is, who are the closest people to the Obamas personally?” Haddad was quoted as saying. “Who’s the hottest property inside their small circle?”

Haddad grew up in Pittsburgh, the granddaughter of Syrian immigrants and the daughter of a gas-station owner. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and went on to become an accomplished cable TV producer for “Larry King Live,” a show she helped create and produced for many years. She did a series of other jobs in television, eventually landing with Chris Matthews as a producer of “Hardball.” That marriage ended in 2007, with some of Matthews’s friends worrying that, if it continued, Matthews would have a nervous breakdown. After leaving “Hardball,” Haddad went into full Force of Nature and reinvention mode. She became a perfect flower of an emerging Washington moment.

Haddad knew exactly who the hottest Obama properties were. Resistance was futile. They became her really good friends. She helped organize parties at which the featured guest was Valerie Jarrett, the Obama BFF and White House senior adviser; she organized a dinner for Dan Pfeiffer as he was ascending to White House communications director. She hosted parties “honoring” people whether they wanted to be honored or not (“party rape,” one close friend of a reluctant honoree called the phenomenon).

Haddad also worked to raise money and awareness for epilepsy research. She had no personal connection to the disease, but her new friends David and Susan Axelrod did. Haddad learned about their daughter’s struggle with an extreme form of epilepsy after reading a 2009 cover story about it in Parade and then seeing Susan Axelrod interviewed on the “Today” show. She was moved by the story, and she also saw great possibility in Susan.

Haddad wrote a letter to Susan Axelrod, whom she had never met. She knew David a little (but not well), in part because, as she likes to say, she “covered” the 2008 campaign with the Tam Cam for Newsweek and The Washington Post. Tammy asked Susan if she would serve as a co-host of her White House Correspondents’ Association brunch that year; Susan Axelrod agreed.

And so Haddad became a tireless promoter and fund-raiser for CURE (Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy). The group raised $1.6 million from private sources in 2009, according to financial statements—three times as much as it had raised the previous year, before David was in the White House. (None of these donors have been disclosed; David Axelrod says that Haddad has never asked for any favors relating to his official role, and Haddad says she has been careful not to do so.) That year, Haddad also helped organize a luminary gathering at a Georgetown mansion to watch David and Susan discuss their parental ordeal with Katie Couric on “60 Minutes.” The Couric interview was another tremendous boon to CURE. The following year, Tammy was honored with the annual Friend of CURE award at a party at the Newseum. The tribute included a video montage featuring several members of the news media (Joe and Mika, David Gregory) all testifying to Haddad’s power, stamina, and fabulousness.

Haddad is not a Washington social-convener type in the tradition of Georgetown hostesses like Sally Quinn, Katharine Graham, and Pamela Harriman, all of whom were married or linked to wealthy and powerful men or institutions. Their social efforts might have carried some business impetus (Quinn and Graham on behalf of their newspaper, Harriman for her work as a political activist and eventual diplomat). But none of them were acting on behalf of paying clients, like Haddad often does, and her business has thrived.

Tammy worked hard to make herself many close friends in the Obama White House. She was pals with Goolsbee, and she co-hosted a party for Michelle Obama’s chief of staff's son (the aforementioned “supertalented author”); and one for David Axelrod’s assistant, who was headed off to law school; and another for Rahm Emanuel’s longtime senior adviser, who had taken a new job at Bloomberg News. Along the way, she acquired a coveted mantle: someone who had “connections” to the Obama White House. She won access to key quadrants of Obama World, even as the administration was taking great pride in rebuffing traditional influence peddlers, like lobbyists. One top White House aide described Tammy to me as an “access peddler.”

At the same time, Haddad was doing consulting work for media outlets such as Politico, Newsweek, Bloomberg, National Journal, The Washington Post, Condé Nast, and HBO. Her work seemed to include video production, event planning, and some promotional components, but she also used her connections to gain journalistic access for her clients. When Politico did a ten-week series of videotaped interviews with administration officials, Haddad arranged the bookings. After Newsweek had been trying for months to land an interview with the president, Haddad “worked her contacts”—her friends in the White House—and helped deliver the interview, as well as one with the first lady. Jon Meacham, then the magazine’s top editor and Haddad’s friend, conducted the interview on Air Force One, and on her website, Haddad described her experience riding on “the Bird,” as insiders (like Tammy) call the presidential jet. Obama mentioned that he’d heard she’d had a great party the previous weekend. Tammy was thrilled by such high-level acknowledgment, naturally, and also by the “Cadillac-quality leather toilet seat cover” in the bathroom, “as wide as any Sumo wrestler could want.” Alas, Tammy did not take any video of the Air Force One visit or the Meacham interview. In other words, it was not immediately clear what Tammy was doing there. Only that she was there, and that it mattered, and how could Washington not be impressed?

As Obama’s first term entered its final stretch, Haddad was on a great run. She seemed to be everywhere, even by her everywhere standards. At the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the Big Get of the weekend was Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, who showed up at Katharine Graham’s old, uninhabited mansion for Haddad’s brunch. Haddad also “got” Rupert Murdoch. At a time when Washington was getting nothing done and attracting massive scorn, she was the prime mover behind the one thing the town seemed to be doing right: celebrating itself. It was a thoroughly familiar scene in an era that would soon be extended four more years: Georgetown manse, valet parking, buffet table, and a whole lot of Tammy.

To me, the emblematic Tammy festival was a party she gave a few months earlier at the elegant Jefferson Hotel across town. It was to honor Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister, who had just written an “important new book,” Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalization. Lots of dire talk in there about global poverty and income disparities, the kind of things you think of when you’re eating salmon and caviar canapés under the chandeliers.

The grand hotel, which opened in 1923, could not have sparkled brighter, but the actual in-person experience was a bit crowded and hot. I tried to slip out, but Terry McAuliffe insisted I join him in a private dining room to pay respects to Connie Milstein, the real-estate maven who owned the hotel and who obviously set off the sensor in the Macker’s brain stem that activates whenever he’s within 30 feet of a rich campaign-donor type. As I stood in the private room, waiting for Andrea Mitchell and Alan Greenspan to finish talking to Milstein, Haddad bounded in with Brown. She introduced me to the former prime minister. “He’s writing a book about how Washington works and trying to get me to participate,” Haddad explained to him. “And I think he’s crazy.”

“I don’t,” Gordon Brown said, looking at me. “Just follow Tammy around. You could do worse.”

Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. This story is adapted from This Town, © Mark Leibovich, in agreement with Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA).

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