Tom Donilon Flashback

Before Donilon was a foreign policy master, he was a political whiz kid. This vignette captures Donilon as Walter Mondale's top delegate-hunter during the 1984 campaign.

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Jason Reed/ Reuters

Tom Donilon with President Barack Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, January 11, 2013.

The pending departure of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was expected; he had been working long days and many nights in the West Wing for more than four years.

But long before Donilon was a foreign policy master, he was a political whiz kid. This vignette, from Newsweek’s The Quest for the Presidency 1984, captures Donilon as Walter Mondale’s top delegate-hunter during the 1984 campaign. It was Donilon’s job to make sure that upstart Gary Hart didn’t steal the nomination from the Minnesota frontrunner:

As Mondale’s master of the hunt, Tom Donilon had that field practically to himself. Donilon was an old pro at twenty-nine with a baby face and a back-room pallor. He had been a chubby kid answering letters in the congressional liaison office at the Carter White House when Hamilton Jordan discovered him and began favoring him with grown-up political assignments, first as an organizer and scheduler in the 1978 congressional elections, then as Carter’s convention floor manager in 1980. Donilon had attracted Vice President Mondale’s favorable notice and had been recruited away from law school, one semester short of graduation, to manage his delegate operation…

Donilon gave the quest seventeen hours a day, bunking in an apartment above Mondale headquarters. He was a night person, usually crashing around midnight, and [Campaign manager Jim] Johnson would invent reasons to call him at seven the following morning to rout him out of bed. The campaign saw that he had everything else he needed: a staff of two dozen trackers and tracker backers, a computer bank of thirty-five hundred detailed delegate profiles, and a Rolodex fat with names of politicians and fund-raisers to call on as persuaders…Donilon drove them all as hard as he was driving himself, racing against a deadline he doubted they could meet. Fifteen excess pounds fell away from his plumpish frame in the process. Two of his trackers hung out a sign reading CAMPAIGN OF THE LIVING DEAD on their office door, and others bore their work anxieties to Donilon as if he were a psychoanalyst.