Williams Is Assistant to Both the Clintons

By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 1994

When then-White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty decided it was time to set up a Whitewater damage control team in January, one person he turned to was Margaret A. Williams, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff.

When Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig wanted to pass a message to the White House about the best strategy for handling Whitewater, he called Williams.

And when Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman decided to remain in charge of overseeing a Whitewater-related case, he telephoned Williams -- who had advocated that course the day before -- to deliver the news and arrange a meeting to inform others at the White House.

As Congress hears testimony from White House officials about their involvement in the administration's handling of Whitewater, the prominence of Williams's role in trying to manage the controversy has become evident.

Yesterday Williams told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee about her intense efforts last winter to keep the First Lady -- and the White House -- focused on health care reform as the tides of Whitewater threatened to swamp other business.

"I had been saying to anyone who would listen that I believed Whitewater was a distraction from the president's agenda, and I did not understand how 17 years of Arkansas history was related to feeding people, clothing people, giving people health care," Williams said. "I was outspoken; I said that; I said it over and over."

In a White House with a different and more powerful First Lady, Williams is a different and more powerful chief of staff. She holds the title of assistant to the president -- on a par with other senior staffers and, in the title-conscious White House, a significant notch higher than her predecessors in the job.

Others in her role worked out of the East Wing of the White House, where the social functions are arranged; Williams's offices are in the West Wing -- next to Hillary Clinton's -- and the Old Executive Office Building.

"Her job is huge," said one official, pointing to Williams's three-part role as a major player on health reform, administrator of the First Lady's staff and overseer of White House social functions. "No First Lady's chief of staff has ever had this kind of job."

In her testimony yesterday, Williams, 39, offered a succinct example of her clout. When asked to explain why Altman would have gone through her to set up the meeting, Williams cited her "instant access" to top officials like deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and senior adviser George Stephanopoulos.

One close observer of the White House offered a different and equally illuminating explanation for Altman's decision to go through Williams: her proximity to the First Lady. "A lot of people try to curry favor with the First Lady through Maggie," this observer said.

While a sizable share of Williams's power derives from the importance of her boss, she also plays a wider role than the specific issues facing the First Lady because of what numerous White House officials describe as her overall good judgment, particularly on communications issues.

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