Surviving The Free Fall
After a Spectacular Political Failure, the Former Top Aide To Clinton Makes Herself at Home in Obama's Camp

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Patti Solis Doyle has come home to get her house in order and her reputation back. It has not been a good year.

After a dramatic failure at the helm of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, and five months after Clinton sacked her via e-mail, she moved back to the comfort of her home town to work for Barack Obama.

Here, she is in the protective cocoon of her close Mexican American family, and enveloped by the familiar faces of the tight Democratic machine that helped shape her.

And here, in a small glass office on the 11th floor, at Obama's campaign headquarters on Michigan Avenue, she keeps her head down and tries to unravel the mysteries of 2008: why Clinton lost, why so many of her old friends have turned on her, why she is largely blamed for the campaign's dysfunction, and, most unsettling to her, why Clinton has distanced herself from her onetime closest confidant.

In Washington, proximity to power is power, and on the February day Solis Doyle was replaced, she experienced one of the more rapid -- and extraordinary -- free falls in American politics. She was immediately shut out of the inner circle and cut loose. She was accused of squandering millions of campaign dollars, of being holed up in her corner office watching soap operas as the campaign collapsed, of being an imperious leader who perpetuated a tense and joyless atmosphere -- all of which she denies.

"It's really sad and discouraging and revolting at times," Solis Doyle, 42, says over lunch one recent day. "I have to tell you, I was surprised by the vitriol towards me. I think I'm a good person."

It is generally an unremarkable event when staffers for a defeated presidential candidate join the rival's campaign. At a certain moment, there is a clarion call for all hands on deck. But Clinton loyalists were enraged when Solis Doyle was named chief of staff for Obama's future vice presidential pick.

She had worked for Clinton for 17 years, through Whitewater and Monica, two Senate races and the relentless GOP attack machine. It was Solis Doyle who coined the phrase "Hillaryland" to describe the coterie of women who have been with Clinton since her years as first lady. In time, she became the ultimate gatekeeper and custodian of all secrets. She was as close as any aide could be to a politician. Clinton read at her wedding.

"When I speak, Hillary is speaking," she would tell people.

Now, she and Hillary do not speak. She and Hillary have not spoken since Feb. 10, the day she was ousted. The senator from New York declined to be interviewed for this article but, through a spokesman, says she wishes Solis Doyle well.

Privately, she has told confidants that she is "disappointed" in Solis Doyle and regrets her decision to put her closest aide in the top campaign job. "I put her in a job she was incapable of performing," one Clinton intimate quotes her as saying recently. "I'm out there killing myself . . . thinking a process exists, and no one said, 'The emperor has no clothes.' "

* * *

The Obama campaign was stunned by the swift and loud outcry from the Clinton camp when Solis Doyle's appointment was announced last month. Loyalists read the hiring as a pointed message from Obama that he had no intention of considering Clinton as his running mate.

"There was no message -- absolutely not," Obama senior strategist David Axelrod says. He said he never asked Solis Doyle, whom he's known for 20 years, where she stood with Clinton, and he says he was not aware of issues associated with her management style.

"Honestly, we were not privy to the history of the campaign's relationships," he says.

The Obama operation hired Solis Doyle, he explains, because it needed someone who had been through the process. "She is my friend -- I make no bones about it," he says. "But we're not a [charitable organization]. We're trying to win a election here. She brought a useful skill set."

Asked whether he had given consideration to Solis Doyle's reputation as a controversial manager, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe says: "There's a culture to an organization that influences people's behavior, and our culture has been collegial and respectful. . . . I heard theirs was not as collegial. . . . In the past few weeks, she has been a complete team player."

Solis Doyle also offered the prospect of a seamless transition because of her longtime relationships with many of those in Obama's inner circle. Fresh from Northwestern University in 1988, Solis Doyle went to work at Chicago's City Hall for Treasurer Miriam Santos and then joined Richard M. Daley's mayoral campaign. Her brother Danny is a well-connected alderman from the city's largely Hispanic lower West Side. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel -- another Chicagoan -- is a friend.

She has leased an apartment virtually next door to the headquarters, filled it with rented furniture and stocked it from Target. Her husband, Jim Doyle, a lawyer, is working from there, and their two young children are settled into day camps. Her mother and siblings are close by. "It's good to be back with old friends, it's good to be home. It's very good to be with my family," Solis Doyle says.

Her job with Obama is a significant one. Reporting directly to campaign manager Plouffe, she is hiring more than 30 people to support the vice presidential nominee and his or her family. "Unless someone has run for president before, this is an experience that is completely indescribable," she says. "The idea of going from zero to 100 overnight -- it is incumbent upon me to staff that person with people who have done this before. And I have done it before." And that staff's foremost loyalty is to the nominee, not his running mate. The fierce loyalty that Solis Doyle once enforced for Hillary Clinton she will now insist upon for Barack Obama.

"The day she conceded I cried," Solis Doyle says, "but I heard her. She said we are moving on, and we cannot waste time with the what-ifs." She says restoring her reputation was not paramount in her decision, but notes, "Certainly, no one would want their final act in anything to be what happened to me."

* * *

It's impossible not to feel sympathy for this sixth child of Mexican immigrants, who, at 25 years old, was Hillary Clinton's first personal staff hire when her husband ran for president in 1992.

"What's so sad is that these relationships often form when someone is very young, and they seem to be immutable and then all of a sudden you realize it's a business," says Solis Doyle's friend Carter Eskew, a longtime Democratic operative. "That's very tough because you've fallen in love."

Solis Doyle grew up in the working-class Pilsen neighborhood in southwest Chicago. She rode a bus for 90 minutes to attend an upscale parochial high school in a better part of town. Her mother worked in a "horrible" industrial laundry, and her father worked three jobs to support the family, never earning more than $18,000 a year, she says.

"My father's motto was work hard, play by rules, never do anything to cause embarrassment to you or the family. He passed away nine years ago. I'm relieved that he didn't have to see me go through this because it surely would have killed him," she says. Her voice catches, but she refuses to cry.

Some Hillary Clinton intimates say Clinton was attracted to Solis Doyle's personal story and so admired her tenacity that she might have overlooked her shortcomings as she brought her up through the ranks. For years, she was Clinton's White House scheduler, which put her in constant contact with the first lady and gave her enormous influence over how Clinton would allocate her time and energy. When Washington's elite needed a piece of Hillary Clinton, Solis Doyle was the woman they called.

When Clinton's 2000 Senate race was faltering, with staffers at one another's throat, she turned to Solis Doyle, then running her fundraising political action committee, who uprooted her husband and baby and moved to New York to bring order. She played the same role in the 2006 reelection campaign, managing the same large personalities that came to dominate Sen. Clinton's historic bid -- Mark Penn, Harold Ickes and Mandy Grunwald. Clinton thought the dynamic worked because, as she told people, "everyone stayed in their own lanes."

And what Solis Doyle lacked in national campaign experience, she made up for with unequivocal loyalty -- a trait Clinton values highly. Paul Begala, a veteran of both of Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns, once called Solis Doyle "bulletproof" because of her relationship with Hillary. Still, many in the extended Clinton family had privately raised doubts to Clinton about Solis Doyle's readiness for a job of this magnitude; among them were longtime friend and fundraiser Terry McAuliffe, and Doug Band, an adviser to former president Clinton.

Solis Doyle was never the campaign's political strategist but was tasked with being the organizer and enforcer, the person who was to watch the budget and make the trains run on time. And when Clinton was 30 points ahead in the polls last year, few complained openly. But after she lost in Iowa, the finger-pointing began.

Why didn't the campaign have as comprehensive a field operation as Obama's? Why didn't Solis Doyle seek skilled operatives to lead the political operations? Why did she rent a headquarters building in Virginia at a steep $100,000 a month -- with a lease that runs until next April? Why did Clinton need to lend herself $10 million to stay afloat after raising $100 million?

"As campaign manager, I ran the campaign. I take responsibility for what worked and what didn't work. End of story," Solis Doyle says now. "But I've been surprised by the extent at which some people have run from the strategies they argued so passionately for."

Adds Howard Wolfson, who was the campaign's spokesman: "Every day for a year, seven people were on a morning conference call making decisions for the whole campaign. Everyone of us bears some responsibility for the outcome."

But listen closely, and the real rage toward Solis Doyle is less about losing -- and far more personal. She is portrayed as a remote and combative personality who used her power to keep people out of the loop, rather than bring them in.

"Look, a number of people in Hillaryland felt that they had something to offer . . . and if Patti didn't give them the back of her hand, she ignored them. They were [ticked] off," says a source who played a role in the campaign. The problem, says this same source, was that given Solis Doyle's relationship with Clinton, no one felt empowered to go around her and complain.

Among those she alienated at one time or another were Capricia Marshall, the matron of honor at Solis Doyle's wedding; Evelyn Lieberman, the former White House deputy chief of staff; and lawyer Cheryl Mills, who argued Bill Clinton's case at Senate impeachment hearings. One example of Solis Doyle's behavior cited by numerous sources occurred the night of the Iowa caucuses. After Clinton lost, Mills took it upon herself to talk to the devastated young volunteers and staff -- and was stunned when Solis Doyle upbraided her, telling her it wasn't her place. All three women, charter members of Hillaryland, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Solis Doyle says that as a manager, she had to make some hard decisions that transcended friendships.

One of her bigger errors may have been her inability to manage Bill Clinton. Sources close to the former president say Solis Doyle dragged her feet on returning his calls. She adamantly denies this. However, when Bill Clinton visited his wife's Des Moines headquarters a few days before the Iowa caucuses, Solis Doyle stayed inside her office for nearly an hour; finally, the former president came over to chat with her before he left. Solis Doyle says she had no clue that the former president and others read her actions as a snub. "For that I am obviously very sorry," she says.

Finally, she is asked if she has tried to reach out to her old friends in an effort to smooth ruffled feathers. She says that she fully intends to do so when the presidential campaign is over but that there hasn't been much opportunity because everyone has been busy and relations have been awkward. She says with confidence that she believes one day she and Clinton will have a rapprochement. "I'm extraordinarily hopeful and optimistic that our relationship with be intact," she says.

"I love Hillary Clinton. She played a huge part if my life for many years. . . . She read at my wedding, she was there for the birth of my children. She is a part of my family."

Solis Doyle e-mailed Clinton to let her know she was going to work for Obama, and Clinton wrote back wishing her well, confirm sources close to the senator.

But as far as patching things up? It's anybody's guess.

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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