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Vital role of security advisers

Over the decades, the top presidential advisers turn out to be basically typecast for the jobs they get. With one exception -- the job that is most vital to our nation's well-being, and the only one for which there has been no precast mold:...

Over the decades, the top presidential advisers turn out to be basically typecast for the jobs they get. With one exception -- the job that is most vital to our nation's well-being, and the only one for which there has been no precast mold:

The national security advisers.

New presidents enter the Oval Office surrounded by a protective political cocoon that is their home-grown inner circle. JFK's Bostonians. LBJ's Texans. Carter's Georgians. Nixon's West Coast Berlin Wall (Haldeman and Ehrlichman). Reagan's California Kitchen Cabinet. Clinton's Arkansans, two Bushels of Texans, and now Obama's Chicagoans. Presidents' domestic advisers tend to be serious and wonky; their speechwriters naturally loquacious (see also: news sources).

But the national security advisers -- whose job it is to make sure their president gets all the competing advice from the Pentagon, State and the intelligence communities -- have been a diverse breed.

We have had some who became famous (meet and greet Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell) and some who remained faceless (meet and greet the four who served President Eisenhower -- if you can find anyone who even knows their names). We have had some who were decorated for their military service and some who never served at all. We've had a number who were academics, having taught international affairs in prestige places before coming to the West Wing to shape what they once taught.

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Now President Obama has chosen as his new national security adviser a man whose credentials are rather unique for the job -- in that they can be described as all the above. And it may well be that Thomas Donilon, who will assume the national security adviser's job at the end of this month, will prove to be precisely what his beleaguered commander-in-chief needs most in the remainder of his presidency.

Donilon's first job after college was as an intern in Jimmy Carter's White House and he launched himself headlong into politics, working on the campaigns of Walter Mondale and Joe Biden. He picked up international policy skills along the way and held key State Department jobs. During the Bush II years, Donilon, by then an insider savvy in the ways of Washington, was a Washington lobbyist for Fannie Mae.

Given the controversies of that employer, it was clear that any appointment requiring Senate confirmation for a job such as deputy secretary of state would have been problematic. So, pushed by his longtime pal, Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Donilon became deputy national security adviser to Obama's departing national security adviser, retired four-star Marine Gen. James Jones -- a job requiring no Senate approval.

Donilon always seemed to understand the Washington verity that proximity is power.

He worked for the last two years squeezed into the small office that was built for its first occupant, then-Col. Alexander Haig, because it was just steps from Richard Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Bob Woodward, in his latest and easily his finest book, "Obama's Wars," writes about how Jones used to fume when Obama's chief of staff dropped by to see his deputy, Donilon, and not Jones. Woodward also chronicles how Donilon was on-point at analyzing the holes in the military's request for 30,000 more troops for Afghanistan. And how the joint chiefs and generals were upset at being asked to re-justify their numbers -- until Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded Donilon was correct.

Woodward wrote: "'We don't have the numbers right,' the secretary of defense said, somewhat chagrined. ...I now don't have confidence in those numbers. So please pull the package from the president, and I'll get you the right numbers."'

Donilon is not just smart but also sharp. But he can be off-putting. Woodward noted that Pentagon generals were offended by his "condescension" -- and he'll have to watch that if he is to be most effective.

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But mainly: Tom Donilon rose from intern to insider by knowing not just the levers of power but also the subtleties that are the key to not just playing the Washington game, but winning. And that's an outcome the president and his inner circle haven't enjoyed often enough in these two tough years.

Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram@gmail.com .

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