The Reluctant Warrior
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 1998; Page C01
Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger opposed the Vietnam War but never threw a rock. He never broke up a meeting by chanting a slogan. He never stormed a classroom. Instead, he stayed inside the lines, working to get like-minded candidates -- Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern -- elected. He never understood the radical politics of disruption. It always seemed so pointless, so counterproductive.
Now, 30 years later, Berger is on the receiving end of those taunts. "One, two, three, four, we don't want your racist war!" came the chant from the field house rafters during CNN's "town meeting" on Iraq last Wednesday at Ohio State University. As national security adviser to President Clinton, he had expected tough questions. But the heckling seemed just as pointless to Berger as it had in the '60s. He couldn't help making a quip in his closing remarks.
"I want to thank all of you for coming," he said, interrupted by the occasional jeer. Then he added, with a wry smile, "And most of you for listening."
While many Americans were seeing him for the first time that day, friends and colleagues who've known him for years say it was vintage Berger. A former trade lawyer with beefy talkative hands and a face like a broadly drawn figure 8, he'll slap a syllogistic full nelson on anybody's argument and wrestle it to the ground. He'll parry with a joke but rarely take a personal swipe.
"The whole East-West way of seeing the world has changed," Berger says. "People ask, 'Why is it in our interest to have soldiers in Bosnia? Why do we have to stand up to Saddam Hussein? After all, he's 9,000 miles away and I don't see a lot of these other countries taking the lead. Why do we have to be the ones to take the lead?' These are all good questions, and part of my job is to explain to the American people what our objectives are."
Today, the presidential confidant and insider is as inside as anyone can be, huddling with Clinton and other top aides as they go over the deal that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has made with Iraq.
Clinton's most visible advisers are Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen. But neither has the same long history or comfort level with Clinton. Berger, 52, met Clinton when they were working for McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. Twenty years later, he was among those who urged Clinton to make his own go at the presidency.
Now one of the White House's chief mouthpieces on Iraq, Berger -- who has spent much of his career behind the scenes -- has been thrust into the spotlight. "I don't volunteer for this sort of thing," Berger says, "but I will do it because it's an important part of my job." (Friends allow that he's actually enjoying it.)
"This really has been his dream," says longtime friend Eli Segal. "With all the pressure and anxiety, he is exactly where he wants to be."
As national security adviser, Berger is both a key foreign policy guide and traffic cop for the president, coordinating communication between the Oval Office and Cabinet members.
"Sandy is the glue that holds us together," Albright says. "In meetings, he walks everyone through what's going on. He asks hard questions, presses the points. He puts everyone through their paces."
Berger's predecessors in the job include Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both of whom have personas as large as their world views.
In personal style, Berger -- though blunt-spoken -- has little in common with either man. He is markedly different, too, from his immediate predecessor, the bookish Anthony Lake, who took an even lower profile -- amazingly -- than his counterpart secretary of state, Warren Christopher. The Clinton policy of attempting to contain Saddam Hussein -- criticized in some quarters as being too passive -- nevertheless mirrors Berger's personality and politics: studied centrism, between aggression and indifference.
"I've always said containment is aesthetically displeasing but strategically sufficient," Berger says. "You wake up in the morning and [Saddam Hussein] is still there and it would be far preferable if he weren't. As for 'getting Saddam,' most Americans would recognize that option would be emotionally gratifying, but the costs of it would be greater than our national interests."
In a town where 12-hour work days are the norm, Berger's usually lasts two hours longer. Aides giving tours catch him in the office during three-day weekends, poring over speeches and memos, making exhaustive notes and editing changes in his famously neat penmanship.
The work ethic, he guesses, is inherited from a mother who had to raise a son and daughter and run a clothing store when her husband died in 1953. Berger's father had wanted out of crowded Brooklyn and took the family to Millerton, in Upstate New York, where he ran an Army-Navy store. With Berger only 8 years old, his mother was alone in a tiny town she hated.
"She just kind of dug in and by her will made it work," Berger says.
One of the few memories Berger has of his father is his love for baseball, which was passed along to the son: The honored guest at a recent birthday party in the White House mess was the mascot from Berger's beloved Baltimore Orioles.
His mother also imparted a strong sense of family, he says.
"Her real disappointments and joys in life centered around her family," Berger says. "Family was everything for her."
Friends say similar things about Berger, who with his wife, Susan, has two adult daughters and a teenage son. His wife is a real estate agent. "Luckily, she's a good one," Berger says, "because I'm an example of downward economic mobility" since leaving Hogan & Hartson, a powerhouse Washington law firm. After having earned more than $400,000 a year as a partner, he now draws a salary of $125,000.
Many of Berger's friends have a story about his work intruding on his family life. Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state and a neighbor of the Bergers in Northwest Washington, recalls a golf outing with Berger and each man's son during Clinton's first term.
"Sandy was in the middle of several iterations on Bosnia," Talbott recalls. "He was constantly trying to find a hill on the course where he could get good cell phone reception with Tony Lake, who was en route to Bosnia." It took Berger two years to finish a doll house for one daughter.
Berger went to Cornell University, where he got a taste of foreign affairs from professor and diplomatic historian Walter Lefeber. After Harvard Law School and turns as an aide to New York Mayor John Lindsay and Democratic Rep. Joseph Resnick, Berger joined Hogan & Hartson. He was lured to a speechwriting job in the State Deparment under Jimmy Carter in 1977. Here, he met Lake and the two became friends, a bond formed at least partially by their youthful opposition to the war in Vietnam and attraction to baseball. Lake soon expanded Berger's duties into policy planning.
Over the years, Berger's acquaintance with Clinton became a friendship. After Clinton lost the Arkansas governorship in 1981, Berger persuaded socialite friend and Democratic fund-raiser Pamela Harriman to appoint Clinton to the board of her political action committee. Clinton -- at Berger's suggestion -- made Harriman ambassador to France in 1993.
When Carter left office, Berger rejoined Hogan & Hartson. But he didn't leave foreign relations: As a partner, he opened the firm's first two international offices, in London and Brussels. And then there were the ad hoc lunch-time foreign policy discussions in the law firm's cafeteria, led by J. William Fulbright, who joined the firm after he retired from the Senate in 1975. Fulbright -- Democrat, friend of Clinton, intellectual and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War -- could easily be considered a role model for Berger.
Politics pulled Berger away from the law again in 1992, when he signed on as Clinton's senior foreign policy adviser during the campaign, ultimately writing an influential speech Clinton delivered at Georgetown University.
He was an adroit salesman for the candidate. Longtime friend Arnie Miller tells this story:
"I wasn't sure who I was for in '92," Miller says, recalling the election between Clinton and George Bush. He and Berger were walking on a New York sidewalk at the time, talking about the election. "I said, 'I don't know. . . . What does Clinton care about, what does he stand for?' We walked past a homeless person in the street, and Sandy says, 'You see that person? Clinton cares about that person.' He knew he was getting to me because that's what I care about."
Berger entered the White House with Clinton as Lake's deputy and, when Lake left more than a year ago, Berger stepped up and became national security adviser.
There is potential for friction between the offices of the secretary of state and the national security adviser: The State Department often is keener on crafting long-term global policies while the latter is sometimes focused on shorter-term goals. There has been open warfare in the past -- such as Brzezinski's attacks on Secretary of State Cyrus Vance during the Carter years.
But Berger and Albright have been friends for years, their families mixing socially on weekends.
"The key to their working relationship is the phone," says Jamie Rubin, assistant secretary of state for public affairs. The two may speed-dial each other upward of 20 times a day, discussing everything from Annan's mission in Baghdad to who should be on which Sunday morning talk show. "They talk on the phone more than two stockbrokers in a market upsurge or crash."
Rubin himself has been the benefactor of Berger's influence. When Rubin infuriated Albright, Berger and Clinton with a remark he made to the press in December, Berger was the one who ultimately intervened, calming the roiling presidential waters and helping save Rubin's job.
"He's the kind of guy you want to be in a trench with," says a grateful Rubin. "That kind of loyalty is rare in this city."
Because Berger is so close to Clinton, he is trusted with certain duties that might not necessarily fall under the national security adviser job description.
His office, for instance, approached CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno to arrange and negotiate the time, location and terms of last week's "town meeting," regarded by some opinion makers as a public relations blunder because of the hecklers.
And Berger opened his West Wing office to John Travolta to brief the Scientologist actor on the Clinton administration's position on the organization's clashes with the German government, which considers it a cult. Critics called the briefing a poor use of the national security adviser's time, though he counters that it is a legitimate human rights issue, as Scientologists are not allowed to join German political parties.
Friends and colleagues say one of Berger's most admirable traits is his ability to defuse a tense situation with a joke, as he tried with the hecklers in Columbus. With Travolta, however, it backfired. On a recent "Meet the Press," Berger said: "I was trying to get an autograph for my son." One columnist called the quote "pitiful." Berger replied with exasperation: "I said, comma, jokingly, 'I was trying to get an autograph for my son.' "
As potential distractions -- Travolta, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky -- mount for the White House, it is Berger's job to keep the president focused on Iraq.
Like many of his Vietnam-era generation who now occupy Washington, Berger developed a distrust of U.S. intervention abroad. Yet he now finds himself agreeing with his president that bombing remains an alternative if the agreement between Saddam Hussein and Annan is unacceptable to the United States. The pragmatist in him says: Sometimes, it is part of the job to wave the big stick.
In many ways, this is the moment Berger has spent his life preparing for -- not helping to orchestrate a war, necessarily, but having a role in history.
"There's that old Beatles song that goes, 'Life is what happens when you're making other plans,' " Talbott says. "That doesn't apply to Sandy Berger. He understands the momentousness of the moment. He is determined to make of his term in government an artifact."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company