CHICAGO -- The man they used to call Sam the Hammer came into the small conference room and sat down at the head of the table.
They no longer call him Sam the Hammer, of course. These days he is much too dignified for that.
These days he is known as Mr. Samuel Skinner, the White House Chief of Staff, one of the two persons who meets alone with the president of the United States every day. (The other is the national security adviser.)
As a prosecutor, Sam Skinner used to hammer felons, once sending federal judge and former Illinois governor Otto Kerner to prison. These days, Skinner helps hammer out domestic and foreign policy for the nation.
But he still knows how to drive a nail or two, especially if it is into the coffin of a political opponent. Like when you ask him what role Pat Buchanan will play at the Republican Convention in Houston this August.
"The president will decide what role he will have, but if he [Buchanan] is going to stay in this through California, it will be a moot point," Skinner said. "Nothing is going to happen if he's fighting us in California."
He paused for a moment. "I am not saying anything will happen anyway," he said.
In other words, if Buchanan drops out of the race now, he might get his air time at the convention. If he does not, he can forget it.
"I hope he will be out as a candidate," Skinner said. "Hopefully, after [the Illinois and Michigan primaries held yesterday] we will put campaigning behind us. [Buchanan's campaign] is a futile exercise. We have enough of a debate from the left that we don't need any more from the right." And then Skinner added: "Not that he's any more conservative than President Bush."
Skinner succeeded John Sununu as chief of staff last December and, after a brief honeymoon period, has gotten some mixed reviews.
"One thing you've got to understand about Washington, D.C.," Skinner said, "is that there are a lot of people who give advice. There are a lot of second-guessers."
Some people giving advice think the Bush campaign effort (in which Skinner plays a key role) should bring back Roger Ailes, Bush's media wizard from 1988. Skinner, however, sees no need for that.
"There are no plans that I know of for that," he said. "Roger has basically ruled himself out and we've got a lot of people around who can play that role."
The role he is speaking of is not just that of a man who makes political commercials, but of a man willing to attack the Democrats and take the heat for his president. And Skinner, himself, is not bad at this.
"This has been a very partisan year," Skinner said, speaking of Congress' treatment of the Bush economic proposals. "We asked the Democrats to put aside partisanship and help America and they didn't."
And besides not helping America, Congress, or at least the House of Representatives, has also been bouncing a few checks.
"The real story is that the Democratic leadership of Congress ran that bank!" Skinner said. "They can't manage a one teller-window bank! I think there will be a political price to pay for that."
When Skinner moved from being secretary of transportation to chief of staff, it was a step up, a step that was accomplished with the aid of key conservatives like Vice President Dan Quayle. But one thing that has always bothered some conservatives is whether Skinner is more moderate than they, especially on the issue of abortion.
When he lived in Illinois, Skinner served on a hospital board that voted to continue the hospital's policy of performing abortions. But how did Skinner, himself, vote?
"I don't know if I was at that meeting . . . so I have no idea," Skinner said. "[Was] I on the board of a hospital that had a policy concerning abortions? Yes, I was. If I voted, I'm of record. If I didn't vote, well, I'm not of record. But the real issue is that I totally and completely support the President's position."
In a recent newspaper interview,
Skinner's closest friends described him as "ambitious, hard-working and pragmatic."
These are not the adjectives you pick to describe a kinder and gentler man. These are the adjectives you pick to describe a man who is a hammer.
So I tried to find out where Sam Skinner's old nickname came from.
"To tell you the truth," one longtime Skinner-watcher told me, "I think Sam made it up. He really likes that nickname."