Gatekeepers of Hillaryland

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

The seasoned Hill aide knew what she was getting into when she agreed to become Hillary Clinton's chief of staff. The woman was quite prepared for all eyes to be on the biggest celebrity arriving in Congress, the first lady of the United States, who was expected to use her Senate seat as a springboard back into the White House.

But what caught Tamera Luzzatto unawares was the full force of the Hillary machine already in place and making decisions.

"All of a sudden, I had the equivalent of a board of trustees -- an infrastructure that was integral to how she did business," recalls Luzzatto, who continues as Clinton's top Senate aide. "They knew what made her tick, how she thought, how to present advice to her -- with everyone united in a determination to see her do well. It was certainly a new experience."

Fifteen years after Clinton first brought these women together at the White House, the "board" has officially reconvened to help map her unprecedented effort to follow in her husband's footsteps. They are acutely aware their work is making history. Once seen as a tight little sorority, today the group -- happily self-described as "Hillaryland"-- is at the center of a front-running presidential campaign. Never have so many women operated at such a high level in one campaign, working with a discipline and a loyalty and a legendary secrecy rarely seen at this level of American politics.

Older and tougher, they have formed a closely knit Praetorian Guard around Clinton that plots strategy, develops message and clamps down on leaks. But their extraordinary protectiveness also contributes to an ongoing perception of insularity around the candidate and the campaign.

Patti Solis Doyle, 41, Clinton's very first hire in 1991, now oversees the national campaign. Veteran Democratic activist Ann Lewis, 69, along with Capricia Marshall, 43, a Clinton White House social secretary, is leading an aggressive outreach to the female voters who are critical to Hillary Clinton's success. Neera Tanden, 37, who started as a brainy junior White House policy wonk, is the campaign's policy director. Huma Abedin, 32, Clinton's omnipresent traveling aide, started in the White House as an intern a decade ago.

Even those not on the payroll are back. Evelyn Lieberman, 62, once a deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and now an official at the Smithsonian, achieved cult status among the disciples for firing Monica Lewinsky before her affair with the president was known, and she remains a trusted adviser. A favorite joke in Hillaryland: If Lieberman invites you for a walk, don't go. It means you're fired. Maggie Williams, 53, the first chief of staff for Hillary Clinton, whom colleagues consider a soul mate to the senator, is a strong voice guiding outreach to African Americans.

And there are at least a dozen more onetime White House aides who remain on staff or in close orbit, raising money, writing speeches and appearing as advocates.

"Something happens to a group of people when you've gone through wars together. You just develop a bond, " says Solis Doyle.

In an era when every hiccup finds its way into tell-all books, particularly where the Clintons are concerned, having a loyal and discreet campaign staff is a great advantage. Solis Doyle leads a daily 7:30 a.m. conference call and a weekly sit-down with senior staff, which includes media director Mandy Grunwald and strategist Mark Penn. These sessions are so zipped-up that when a strategy memo about the Iowa caucuses surfaced in media reports, the campaign was quickly satisfied that the leak had not come from anyone in Hillaryland. And none of the group has written a tell-all book.

But this kind of allegiance can exact a cost. Clinton's disciplined operation, closer to the model employed by President Bush than to the freewheeling style of her husband, can seem deaf to dissonant voices and unexpected political developments.

"I would have to say the disadvantages outweigh the advantages," says William Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University who studies presidential campaigning. "You run the risk of a groupthink mentality often taking hold of something, and you're slow to realize things are not going well."

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