Every president comes to Washington with a coterie of outside advisers, friends, and fixers they’ve picked up during the course of a career. Eventually one or more of them becomes controversial. Richard Nixon had Bebe Rebozo. Jimmy Carter had his brother Billy and Bert Lance. Ronald Reagan had Mike Deaver. Bill Clinton had many trailing after him — they became the menagerie implicated in Whitewater and Monicagate. But Barack Obama’s inner circle has almost completely escaped close scrutiny since he became president. That may be about to change, and the rich cast of characters making up Team Obama merits further attention.
A new biography of Obama by Edward Klein called The Amateur has rocketed to the No. 1 slot on the New York Times bestseller list. Among its explosive allegations is that after videos of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s anti-American sermons surfaced in the 2008 campaign, a close friend of Obama’s and a fellow member of Wright’s church named Eric Whitaker approached the reverend. In a taped interview with Klein, Wright said Whitaker offered him — via e-mail, through an intermediary — $150,000 to stop preaching and appearing in the media until after the election.
After Wright turned the offer down, Barack Obama set up a private meeting with him to urge him not to speak publicly during the campaign. Secret Service logs document that it took place,
writes Klein. But Wright refused to cooperate, and the meeting ended in frustration for Obama.
Efforts to discredit Klein’s book by Team Obama went into overdrive after the revelation. Certainly, Klein made errors in a previous book attacking Hillary Clinton, and his occasional sloppiness in his current book isn’t up to the standards of a New York Times Magazine editor, which he used to be. But Klein says he has tapes with Wright to back up his account, which also includes the charge that Obama relied on Whitaker to find a replacement preacher once Wright was dropped from an Obama event.
Whitaker’s role in Obama’s world is important because, as Patrick Brennan has pointed out on National Review Online, “it’s almost impossible to overstate how close Whitaker is to the president.” He’s been a friend of and fundraiser for Obama for nearly 20 years and has joined the first family on every summer and Christmas vacation since 2008. Politico reported in 2009 that Whitaker had become “a kind of gatekeeper and spokesman for Obama’s inner circle.”
Whitaker has also been involved in Illinois’s always shady politics. He became the state’s top health official in 2003 when he was appointed by then-governor Rod Blagojevich, now a resident of federal public housing after his conviction in 2011 on corruption charges. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2008, Obama gave Whitaker “a ‘glowing’ reference to Tony Rezko,” who interviewed him for the job. Rezko, a friend of Obama’s for two decades and a top fundraiser for both Obama and Blagojevich, is also now in federal prison on corruption charges. Prosecutors alleged that Rezko engineered pay-to-play schemes with Blagojevich to help allies secure jobs. Neither Obama nor Whitaker was implicated during Rezko’s trial.
You might recall the name of Tony Rezko from the 2008 campaign.
Rezko was involved with Obama in a controversial 2005 land deal in which Obama bought a $1.65 million home on the same day that Rezko’s wife bought the plot of land next to it from the same seller for $625,000. Obama has strenuously denied suggestions that the same-day sale enabled him to pay $300,000 under the house’s asking price because Mrs. Rezko paid full price for the adjoining lot — a portion of which Obama subsequently purchased — but he admitted the whole deal was a “boneheaded” mistake.
One of Whitaker’s duties as Illinois’s health director was to oversee the scandal-wracked Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board. Under Blagojevich, that board was used to extract kickbacks for state contracts to expand hospitals, which financially benefited Rezko and his associates who controlled the board. During a subsequent investigation, Whitaker denied knowing anything about the wrongdoing, saying he wasn’t involved in the board’s day-to-day operations.