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In Memory of John Reilly

Friday, 17 Oct 2008 08:59 AM

The night before the Labor Day launch of the 1984 Mondale campaign, John Reilly called a meeting of all of us who would be traveling for the coming months on the plane with the nominee. Reilly's formal title was "senior adviser," and while that title is often used in politics to denote thirysomethings with no specific responsibility, in Reilly's case it was accurate.

Reilly was the grownup on the plane. He sat in the front next to the candidate. He'd been there and done that, and most importantly, he had the stature, the experience, and the independence to say no. And if he could say no to the candidate, he could certainly say it to the rest of us.

On that Sunday night, he announced what he called the "Reilly rule." It was not intended to be mean-spirited. It was a reflection of the seriousness of our effort and the fact that there was no room in it for personal ego trips. And it was very simple: If you hear about a meeting, and you weren't invited, and you're thinking to yourself, Maybe it was a mistake; maybe I was supposed to be there; maybe it was just an oversight that I wasn't told . . . the answer to your question is no.

That was the Reilly rule. If you weren't invited, it's because you aren't wanted. We thought of you. It was considered. You're not needed. Go do your work.

Whew. "He's tough," I said to someone as we filed out of the meeting. He was tough. Tough, smart and determined. Focused on the only thing that mattered. He wasn't mean, just clear.

I had run my own operation for most of the preceding year as executive director of the Platform Committee for Rep. (and by then vice presidential nominee) Geraldine Ferraro. I was not nearly so tough. It was a small operation. I invited everyone to meetings. I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

But starting in August, we weren't just trying to write a platform. We were trying to unseat an unpopular incumbent president. It was probably — certainly, as it turned out — impossible.

Reilly wasn't mean. But nice wasn't the goal. Disciplined and tough, hardball with honor — that was the goal. That's how he played. I learned a lot sitting behind him, eavesdropping on his conversations.

At the end of the day, Reilly could tell a great story. He had many friends and admirers in politics, dating back to his days working in the Justice Department. He met the woman of his dreams during that campaign, Margaret Warner, then of Newsweek, now of "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," and their love has been a shining light for the two decades since.

But boy was he tough. Tough and honest.

John Reilly died this week. One of my friends told me that his last conversation with John, from the hospital bed, was about the polls. "F******-A," John said, on hearing of the sea of blue that seems to be sweeping the country.

When I looked up his bio to write this piece, the thing that struck me most was that John's job in the Justice Department back in the day was chief of the Office of United States Attorneys. I may have known that once, but didn't make much of it. It's not an office most of us knew much about until it became a political slaughterhouse under this administration.

I tried to imagine the White House calling on Reilly to get rid of some of the most successful U.S. attorneys in the country to make room for some better-connected hacks. I think I know what he would say. I can't write it right here, but you get my drift.

The Reilly rule was not about hurt feelings, it was not about making nice; it was about fighting hard and doing what was right. So was John Reilly. May he rest in peace.

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