Hillary Rodham Clinton widens her circle at the State Department

By Lois Romano
Thursday, March 11, 2010; C01

Hillary Rodham Clinton ran a presidential campaign notoriously insular and unhappy, managing a group of egos and backstabbers whose dysfunction may have cost her the White House. Understandably, people wondered what kind of management style she would bring to the State Department.

But a little over a year into her tenure as secretary of state, allies and detractors alike say Clinton has made a vigorous effort to widen her circle, wooing and pulling into her orbit the agency's Foreign Service and civil service officials, many of whom said in interviews that she has brought a new energy to the building.

"We have had other secretaries of state who have cared deeply for the institution," said Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary for management and a senior Foreign Service officer. "None who have done as much internal outreach."

To be sure, Clinton has her share of critics who take aim at her operating style, complaining that she has ceded too much of her power to special envoys and that she has been in a global campaign mode of relentless image-building, intense travel and international media cultivation. Her job-approval ratings top President Obama's.

One loyalist inside the agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, suggested that Clinton is stretched too thin and has not narrowed her goals or developed signature issues that will define her tenure. "What bothers me is that we're planting zillions of seeds . . . speeches on every issue, but where's the thematic coherence?" this aide said.

Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked at the State Department under Colin L. Powell, agreed that Clinton "seems to still be struggling with priorities" and questioned whether she has a "grand strategic vision."

But, he added, "there is no question from a public diplomacy standpoint, she has had a lot to offer in different parts of the world" because of her star power. And he noted that inside the agency, "people invested in the institution are quite happy with things. Here's a woman who everyone expected to be circling the wagons and running the place with a small coterie, and that hasn't happened."

Hillaryland goes global

It is well known that Clinton has long placed a high premium on loyalty, some say too high, leaving her open to criticism that she values it over job qualifications. And at State, she is still surrounded by advisers from her days as a first lady and a senator -- often referred to as Hillaryland. In addition, her vast network of former White House, Senate and campaign aides, as well as some supporters, permeates every floor of the building.

But before she was confirmed, Clinton was expanding Hillaryland: She asked two popular Foreign Service officers -- Kennedy and William J. Burns, undersecretary for political affairs -- to stay on. She has approached this new constituency of 60,000 worldwide like a seasoned pol trying to shore up support.

Those interviewed inside and outside the agency say Clinton has done a good job of heading off the historical tensions between career employees and quadrennial political newcomers by relying on the counsel of senior Foreign Service operatives and reaching out in general.

She has walked the halls and popped into offices unexpectedly, created an electronic "sounding board," and held seven internal town hall meetings to listen to gripes about everything from policy to cafeteria food to bullying in the workplace. She installed six new showers that joggers requested, is taking steps to remedy overseas pay inequities and instituted a policy that allows partners of gay diplomats to receive benefits. She became a heroine to the Foreign Service when she went to bat to get funding for 3,000 new Foreign Service positions for State operations and the U.S. Agency for International Development -- the first boost of this magnitude in two decades.

Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary for the Near East and a Foreign Service officer, is one of those whom Clinton surprised -- and won over. He was already looking for a new job when she tracked him down at his barbershop 24 hours after she was sworn in to seek his advice. A few weeks later, she asked him to stay on.

"We've heard it before: Yes, diplomacy matters. Yawn. Sounds great, but we tend to be cynical about such language in comparison to the actual resources devoted to DOD versus State," Feltman said. "She has tried to demonstrate that it's more than lip service by fighting for resources . . . and listening to us."

Added Kennedy: "She fully understands that when she came in there was a weak and degraded platform. You need it to be refreshed with new people and new blood, and that's what we are getting in now."

Longtime confidants

Clinton had one condition that eclipsed all others as she considered Obama's offer to be secretary of state: She demanded hiring authority at the department. To Team Clinton, this meant every political job -- about 200 -- from the most senior level to the 20-something researchers. Historically, it is the president who fills these political positions, and no one can recall a Cabinet secretary in recent memory requesting and receiving this kind of hiring latitude.

So rare are Obama people at the agency that Alec Ross -- an Obama campaign Internet star who aggressively sought to work for Clinton -- is jokingly referred to as the "Obama guy."

Guarding the door at Foggy Bottom last year was a trio from the top echelon of Hillaryland. Among them -- Cheryl Mills, who was deputy counsel in the Clinton White House; Hillary Clinton's White House chief of staff, Maggie Williams; and Tamara Luzzatto, her Senate chief of staff -- they knew everyone who had ever worked for Clinton over the years and who hoped to join her at State. They also recruited high-profile experts who had not worked for Clinton -- but neither were they associated with Obama.

Of the three, only Mills joined State, as Clinton's chief of staff, along with other longtime confidants and charter members of Hillaryland: global women's expert Melanne Verveer; protocol chief Capricia Marshall; her Senate spokesman, Philippe Reines; traveling aide Huma Abedin; speechwriter Lissa Muscatine; and Jacob Lew, Office of Management and Budget director under President Bill Clinton and a deputy secretary of state.

There were inevitable resentments when Obama supporters and loyal campaign workers were not hired at State. "The president was very supportive of her desire to build her own team," said one senior Clinton adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "but the news didn't filter down to the staff level. . . . Yes, there were tensions."

There have been some internal strains as well between the old Clinton guard and some recent political hires. One personnel headache for Clinton has been the Bureau of Public Affairs, a sprawling operation of 200 staff members that was rife with low morale and organizational issues before she arrived, compounded by new demands brought on by her celebrity, her extensive travels and her longtime staff feeling the need to do the job themselves.

One area of concern, say State Department sources close to the situation, revolves around who ultimately speaks for the department at media briefings. "It's been like open-mike night over there," said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley, who worked in the Clinton White House but had no previous relationship with Hillary Clinton, said in an e-mail that he is responding to a recent critical inspector general's report on his bureau and "making the personnel and structural changes needed." An earlier draft of the report touched on friction between Crowley and Reines, who is close to Clinton. Both acknowledged rough patches. "There is far more collaboration than there was six months ago," Crowley said. "We definitely have more work to do."

According to three sources with knowledge of State personnel decisions who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the White House made one significant request last year: that Clinton tap as her deputy James Steinberg, a foreign policy expert who had worked for her husband but whom Obama passed over for White House national security adviser. There are differing views as to whether Clinton was enthusiastic about hiring Steinberg, but there appears to be a single view on whether he's a good fit: Numerous sources inside and outside the department describe Steinberg as unhappy in the job. He did not respond to two requests for an interview.

After bringing on Steinberg, Clinton hired Lew for a second deputy's slot -- filling the job for the first time since it was created a decade ago. Those close to her insist that the intent was not to undercut Steinberg but to ramp up efforts to increase the agency's budget and take back control of its ability to manage development programs. Lew has an office adjoining that of Mills, whose office connects to Clinton's.

Several career employees said they were caught off guard initially by Clinton's level of engagement in internal management, particularly coming on the heels of her more reserved predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. On her first tour of the building, before she was sworn in, Clinton requested a budget briefing. Kennedy said it soon became clear what she meant: not an overview, but a line-by-line review that took three sessions to complete.

Shamila Chaudary -- a self-described "backbencher" -- had toiled for years as a faceless expert on the Pakistan desk when one day she found herself invited to brief Clinton. Chaudary, 32, said the two sparred over whether it was prudent to engage non-governmental power centers in Pakistan, with Clinton expressing skepticism.

Chaudary held her ground, making the point that "we've been seen as not engaging with them, and it's hurt us a lot." She said that although she and Clinton "didn't necessarily agree . . . she said that it's very important for us to debate like this. . . . This is how she said she wants to do business."

Within 48 hours of their meeting, Chaudary was promoted to a front-line job in the office of policy planning.

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