Slate’s Press Box blogger Jack Shafer took a hacksaw to the Times’s Saturday profile of National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough, calling White House reporter Helene Cooper’s piece a “weightless profile” and implying it was a “beat sweetener.”

That’s a big call, so we thought we’d take a look. Turns out Shafer’s got a point, even if he makes it a little harshly.

Cooper’s profile, “The Advisor At The Heart of National Security,” portrays McDonough as Obama’s foreign policy right hand and sometime proxy. The tone is captured in Cooper’s lede:

Some of President Obama’s top national security advisers believed late last year that they had reached consensus on an aspect of Afghanistan strategy after meeting with Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser.

They should have checked first with Denis McDonough, the National Security Council’s chief of staff. “I don’t think that’s where the president is on that,” Mr. McDonough informed his higher-ups, according to two administration officials.

A couple of months later, when state officials in Florida tried to halt medical evacuation flights from Haiti, Mr. McDonough, on the ground in earthquake-stunned Port-au-Prince, got on his BlackBerry, which is never far from his side. Within a few hours, as other officials tell it, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acted to keep the airspace open.

Clearly, this is a man who gets things done and has the president’s ear. Speaking of big calls, this comes next:

Forget Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. When it comes to national security, Mr. Obama’s inner circle is so tight it largely consists of Mr. McDonough, a 40-year-old from Minnesota who is unknown to most Americans but who is so close to the president that his colleagues — including his superiors — often will not make a move on big issues without checking with him first.

Lest you should prep yourself for a fascinating inside scoop, that’s about as far as the article goes. The rest of Cooper’s 1,095 words hammer home the same point—McDonough is an unrivaled confidante and ally—without giving much of an idea of who McDonough is, how he came to be that way, and what exactly he is confiding.

What we learn is all there in the lede. We learn that McDonough has fab access to Obama:

Forget Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. When it comes to national security, Mr. Obama’s inner circle is so tight it largely consists of Mr. McDonough, a 40-year-old from Minnesota who is unknown to most Americans but who is so close to the president that his colleagues — including his superiors — often will not make a move on big issues without checking with him first.

We learn that he works hard, and has worked hard for Obama:

Mr. McDonough shoveled the driveway and sidewalk of a Davenport, Iowa, couple as part of an unsuccessful effort to woo them into caucusing for Mr. Obama instead of Mrs. Clinton.

We learn that McDonough is defensive about Obama:

His e-mail messages are legendary across Washington, and usually appear right after a critique hits the Web.

Of his bio, we learn that he once worked for Tom Daschle (we get no idea for how long), and then at the Center for American Progress (doing or writing God knows what), and that he lives in Maryland. The paper’s shorter profile of McDonough from its 2008 series, The New Team, tells you more.

A flabbergasted Shafer asks:

But why exactly does this 40-year-old, 6-foot-3 giant occupy an “inner circle” of two with Obama when it comes to U.S. national security? Why do all of his bureaucratic rivals kowtow to him? After reading the piece four times, I haven’t a clue.

What national security ideas does McDonough have? The Times doesn’t say. What advice has he given the president? The Times doesn’t say. Where did he go to school, and what has he written about national security?

Valid questions. We’d add some more. Who are his parents? What did he study in school? (Maybe he studied with someone who could tell us something slightly interesting about him?) How much influence did he have on the president’s decision on Afghanistan? Does he ever disagree with the president? Has the president ever disagreed with him?

Cooper is generally a strong writer and reporter, with a well-received book under her belt. And while calling the piece a possible “beat sweetener,” as Shafer does, is to ascribe motive that we cannot know exists on behalf of Cooper or her editors, the profile does feel rather weightless. Shafer astutely points out that there are no enemies or naysayers quoted, something he calls “a necessary element of any profile.” In the Game Change era, some would say such material is the very stuff of the political profile.

Even if we are to give Cooper the benefit of the doubt, conceding that there were no curmudgeons to quote—or, as a commenter on Shafer’s piece claims, that they were too afraid of one of McDonough’s infamous e-mails to say anything critical—there is another issue we find problematic. Cooper’s piece reads like a profile written by a White House writer for other White House writers. Rather than the meat of who McDonough is and what he thinks, we’re given a series of anecdotes about how he deals with the press. As any one of us who has tried talking shop with non-industry friends knows, we’re only so interesting. (Notably, McDonough refused to be interviewed for the piece.)

We learn that McDonough is quick to critique other foreign policy wonks who criticize Obama in the press, that he chews out officials at the Pentagon and State Department for early leaks, and that he’s happy to let the media know how he feels.

He spent the entirety of his bike ride home to Takoma Park, Md., from the White House late one recent night arguing on the cellphone with a reporter who he believed had mischaracterized an internal administration debate over Iraq policy.

Such stories maketh the man, to an extent, but Shafer is right to want more. And we’d ask for it from somewhere other than McDonough’s BlackBerry.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.