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."
Not so, says Solis Doyle. "Loyalty does not equal unanimity," she cautions. "We disagree with each other and with her."
Still, veteran operatives were bewildered by the ferocity with which the campaign attacked opponent Barack Obama and David Geffen after the Hollywood mogul publicly criticized Clinton and threw his support to Obama. The tactic kept the story unhelpfully alive for days. Campaign sources concede today that the situation could have been better handled, but they also acknowledge that no one on the team really objected to the counterattack.
"You have to understand," says one, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the misstep. "We were always the underdog before, always under seige. It was reflexive. But we learned something."The Ties That Bind
Indeed, there is a well-fixed impression in political circles that Hillary Clinton, 59, long has had a bunker mentality, following the raucous 1992 presidential campaign that exposed her husband's infidelity. Inside the Clinton White House, she was the one most reluctant to release information -- and the one to advocate the quick punch back at critics.
But among her own staff, she has cultivated a nurturing culture of collegiality and loyalty, a leadership style based in teamwork, and often favored by women, that values consensus over hierarchy.
"She never lets anyone criticize her staff," says Neel Lattimore, who was a spokesman for her in the White House. "The loyalty is a two-way street."
The Clinton women say they are bound together by the issues they believe in, the combat they have endured, and a passion to elect their boss as the first woman president in U.S. history. They have a personal connection virtually nonexistent among professional male colleagues. Even rarer: the weekly yoga class at the campaign's Arlington headquarters, open to all staffers.
Hillary, as they call her, has thrown them wedding showers, burped their babies, intervened in their medical care, and spent many an evening gossiping with them around the kitchen in stocking feet. Since polling has suggested voters perceive the senator as cool and aloof, her closest aides are eager to share such stories, as the campaign strives to humanize the candidate.
There are men who have become naturalized citizens in Hillaryland, of course, most prominent among them Penn, who runs the campaign's polling and crafts the message, as he did for President Bill Clinton; communications director Howard Wolfson (a Hillaryland member since 1999); and the ubiquitous but unofficial adviser Harold Ickes, a longtime liberal activist, Clinton loyalist and expert on New York politics.
Hillaryland began with Solis Doyle, who was hired as Clinton's scheduler in 1991, a few years out of college. Fresh from Richard M. Daley's successful Chicago mayoral campaign, she showed up in Little Rock looking to join Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. Solis Doyle landed a powerful perch after the campaign coordinating the first lady's schedule.
At the White House, Clinton insisted her staff be given the same lofty titles as her husband's aides -- as well as offices in the West Wing nerve center near those they called "the white boys." It was an unprecedented arrangement. First ladies had been historically relegated to the East Wing to deal with safe issues and social rituals, like decorating the Christmas tree.
"We were fully immersed in the daily operation of the West Wing," Clinton wrote in her memoir, "Living History," "but we were also our own little subculture." And a quite independent one at times.
A year into her tenure, the first lady was besieged by questions about the Whitewater land deal and her personal finances. She wanted to address the media with no interference from her husband's staff. Hillaryland clicked into high gear, secretly planning the complicated logistics of the counteroffensive. Her office summoned the White House press corps to the State Dining Room -- minutes before the now famous "Pink Press Conference." Blindsided, her husband's stunned advisers could do nothing but watch her on television, as she fielded questions in her bright pink suit.
Solis Doyle stayed at the White House for eight years and hasn't been far from Hillary Clinton since, most recently heading Clinton's fundraising. When Beltway operatives privately question whether Solis Doyle has the management experience to run a presidential campaign, Hillaryland scoffs. "Patti is her single most important political adviser now," says Ickes. "She understands Hillary's dynamics, her rhythms, what will fly with her, what won't, how to best structure a schedule that plays to her energy levels."
Ickes says Solis Doyle -- known to be competitive and organized -- earned her right to run this campaign in 2000, when she uprooted her family and moved to New York to bring order to the faltering Senate race.
Like others in Hillaryland, Solis Doyle has a compelling personal story. She was the sixth child of Mexican immigrants from Chicago; her mother worked in a "horrible" industrial laundromat, she says, and her father worked three jobs. "My father died never making more than $18,000 a year," she says.
She is the person who speaks to Clinton several times a day and the one who declares when a decision has been made. "I'm a closer," says Solis Doyle.
Mandy Grunwald, today Clinton's media adviser and advertising director, says Solis Doyle's style reflects how the candidate wants business conducted. "[Clinton] hates behind-the-scenes maneuvering. If you have a difference of opinion, say so, but when a decision is made, it's made," says the consultant, who started out as an adviser to Bill Clinton.
Issues chief Tanden joined Hillaryland fresh from Yale Law School in 1997, when she was hired in the West Wing policy shop but assigned to the first lady. "All of a sudden I'm going to Hillaryland meetings and there were cakes for people's birthdays and it was a different world," recalls Tanden.
She worked on the Senate campaign, then became legislative director when Clinton took office. Tanden says that the issues about which Clinton most cares are the social programs that saved Tanden's own family. She grew up in Bedford, Mass., the product of an arranged Indian marriage. Her father left when she was young, forcing the family to go on welfare.
Former social secretary Marshall's father came to the United States from Croatia with $4 in his pocket, she says, went through Ellis Island and ended up in Cleveland, where she grew up. He cried the first time he visited her in the White House.
"A lot of us are from middle-class -- even lower-middle-class -- families, people who wanted to make it," says Marshall, whose job it was to greet and seat kings and prime ministers at the White House. Marshall has spent almost her entire career working for Clinton; she, too, joined up right out of law school.
The staying power of this group can be seen as remarkable in light of what they've been through: the health-care debacle, dragged before a Whitewater grand jury at their own legal expense, pushed to take lie-detector tests, crying at their desks during a humiliating sex scandal and impeachment. But it is also what binds them together.
"I feel like she always has my back, and no matter what, I'm going to have hers," says Solis Doyle. "It gives you a real sense of comfort when you're working and the stakes are this high."
They all describe the first lady's office as having been a veritable day-care center at times, with kids' toys everywhere. When Marshall became pregnant, she didn't want to give up her job -- and neither would Clinton think of replacing her. Days after her son was born, Marshall was back at her desk with baby and her mother in tow. Clinton brought Chelsea's crib from storage, set it up in the residence and got her mother a White House pass.
"We were a family," said Melanne Verveer, Hillary's chief of staff in the second term, who today raises money and serves as the institutional memory on policy issues.
And as with many families, problems arise. The lowest moment came the day it became clear that Bill Clinton was about to admit his relationship with Lewinsky. "Everyone was angry," says one source, who like others would not talk for attribution on the topic. "It was a very weird time," says another. "I remember he stuck his head in one day and I could barely look at him."
Hillary Clinton confided her own feelings to no one on her staff, aides say, although many sources speculate she spoke to Maggie Williams, who had left the White House by then. Williams won't comment on that time period. But she acknowledges that she and Clinton have a closeness rooted in both spirituality and issues.
"We both believe that faith is a critical element in one's life and key to your decision-making and how you see the world," says Williams, who consults with the campaign from her home in Rhode Island. "It's rooted in a continuous struggle to do better."
Clinton insisted that as her top aide Williams be given the same title as the president's chief of staff: assistant to the president. And while Williams describes Hillary Clinton as a "very good friend," she says her loyalty comes from a sense of mutual purpose.
"It starts with a common commitment to ideas and a common worldview," says Williams, who met Clinton when she worked at the Children's Defense Fund and Clinton was on the organization's board. "This commitment thing is a big piece of the loyalty. I think there is a commitment to fairness, a sense of those who have more should be entrusted to do more."The Inner Circle Grows
There is no shortage of top-level political operatives these days who would like to eventually join Team Clinton, amid grumblings that the campaign seems reluctant to open up its senior roles to outsiders.
Clinton has invited a select few of those who worked for "him" into her fold. All of them have been battle-tested by their years with the Clintons. Cheryl Mills, who as White House deputy counsel addressed Congress during Clinton's impeachment hearing, is a lawyer for the campaign. Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe remains as Clinton fundraiser emeritus. John Podesta, President Bill Clinton's last chief of staff, accompanied the senator to the South Carolina debate. Former presidential aide Kris Balderston is now deputy chief of staff in the Senate.
And, with the first primary votes seven months ago, top aides say they understand the necessity of expanding the campaign's inner circle. They point to relatively recent additions to Hillaryland as proof that newcomers are welcome: scheduler Kim Molstre; the campaign's deputy chief of staff, Mike Henry; its latest spokesman, Phil Singer, who was the spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through 2006. Her longstanding Senate press secretary, Philippe Reines, came from Al Gore's campaign and Lorraine Voles, Clinton's Senate communications director, held the same job for Gore when he was vice president.
"We know that it takes a lot of talented, experienced people to get her elected and we are opening it up," assures Solis Doyle. "We have to bring in new people. We cannot do this on our own."
As for Luzzatto, she is fully integrated into the fold.
A top aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) for 15 years, she had taken a sabbatical from the Hill when Verveer tapped her as the experienced hand needed to guide Clinton's transition from first lady to senator. "She was absolutely focused on doing good," Luzzatto says, "defying a lot of expectations and, frankly, caricatures. She wants the right things to happen."
Three years ago, Luzzatto was diagnosed with a brain tumor, initially thought to be cancerous. It was Clinton who "mobilized" her medical care, finding her a surgeon. And her colleagues in Hillaryland stepped up to help her do battle.