Ex-Aides Find 2nd Chance With First Lady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 1999; Page A1
Each morning at 7:30, the top advisers to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate exploratory campaign talk by conference call. On the line are two people who were shown the door at the Clinton White House -- and another who walked out on her own.
The first lady's historic venture into electoral politics is in some ways a campaign of expatriates.
Her core group includes Harold Ickes, who served as President Clinton's deputy chief of staff but left feeling burned by the president's brusquely handled decision not to promote him after the 1996 election. It includes Mandy Grunwald, a key consultant in the 1992 campaign who was effectively banished from the West Wing in 1994, after that year's twin disasters of the failed health care reform proposal and the Republican takeover of Congress.
It also includes Hillary Clinton's first-term chief of staff, Margaret A. "Maggie" Williams. She never had a falling-out of the sort that Ickes or Grunwald did. But by the start of the second term, she said she was burdened with legal bills of $300,000 and weary of what she regarded as Washington's prosecutorial culture. Newly married, she was happy to retreat to a new life in Paris. Now, still on the other side of the Atlantic, Williams is back in the political mix.
The battle-scarred brain trust assembling on behalf of Hillary Clinton's emerging campaign illustrates a larger truth about her White House experience. The first lady, in many ways more than the president, has succeeded in forging deep emotional attachments with those who toil for her.
Williams's feelings, a blend of idealism and grievance, seem close to those that associates say are motivating the first lady herself to run for office in a state where she has never lived.
"I'm a person who's always been interested in politics and thought it was a very noble occupation," she said in an interview. "The whole notion of what it had become -- investigations because people were making a political point -- I found very disillusioning. I still want to hold on to my beliefs, and as long as I have that I won't stray too far from politics."
Ickes, characteristically, offers a more blunt-spoken view of his involvement as a kind of Sherpa to Hillary Clinton's Empire State expedition. "There is some irony to it -- fired in the West Wing, hired in the East Wing," he said.
Ickes was not exactly fired by Clinton. As the first term drew to a close, the president chose North Carolina businessman Erskine B. Bowles over Ickes to be his new chief of staff. The move had been widely predicted within the White House, where even some Ickes fans thought Bowles would be a more politic choice than the hard-edged New York lawyer. Still, Ickes got word of Clinton's choice when he read it in the newspaper -- a harsh form of thanks for a man who had managed Clinton's scandal damage-control operation and reelection campaign. Clinton said later he regretted how the episode was handled.
"Was I disappointed? Yes. We all have friends who have disappointed us," said Ickes, who added that he has not been shaken in his belief that Clinton is "a darn good president."
As for the first lady, Ickes said, his relationship with her never went through strain -- and he considered it natural to help her learn the political lay of the land in his native state. The same is true, he said, of other first-term veterans who find themselves back on the front lines. "All of us have devoted an enormous amount of the last seven or eight years of our lives to the Clinton enterprise," he said. "We've gone through an awful lot with these two. There's a bonding experience, and you don't jettison that quickly."
Hillary Clinton's aides caution against drawing many conclusions from the return of these first-termers. Her core group also includes newcomers such as campaign press secretary Howard Wolfson.
And while people such as Ickes and Grunwald, both of whom advocated liberal positions when they were working for the president, are on board, this is not necessarily a clue to the ideological course of Hillary Clinton's campaign. Among her other advisers are pollsters Mark Penn and Doug Schoen, who helped the president fashion his winning centrist message in 1996. The strategic key to Hillary Clinton's campaign is winning independent suburban voters, say several advisers, which necessitates running on issues similar to those that have worked for her husband. It is a point, her aides say, that liberals on her team understand as well as the moderates.
For Bernard Nussbaum, President Clinton's first White House counsel, Hillary Clinton's campaign is about friendship -- even though the president gave him a shove after early controversies over how to respond to the Whitewater investigation. Associates say Nussbaum left the White House embittered by the experience. But this history has not prevented him and his wife, Toby, from helping plan a Westchester County fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton next month.
"The explanation is fairly simple: I've known Hillary, Toby has known Hillary, for 25 years," Nussbaum said. "Whatever feelings I might have from time to time about the president -- sometimes they're good ones, sometimes they're not good ones -- this is the continuation of a relationship. She needs help; she's a friend; we help her."
Grunwald declined to be interviewed for this story. But associates say that even after she was evicted from Clinton's inner circle, she remained close to Hillary Clinton. With experience on the campaigns of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat Hillary Clinton wants to succeed, she is a logical choice to be playing a critical role in the first lady's venture.
Still, the makeup of Hillary Clinton's inner circle presents numerous ironies. For instance, it was Ickes, the first-term enforcer, who had to tell Grunwald that the president no longer desired her services. He had to deliver the same message to Nussbaum.
Not all of Hillary Clinton's loyalists view her ambitions the same way. Increasingly, say a variety of White House and Democratic sources, her time is focused on the exploratory campaign -- and that has eclipsed the role of her close-knit White House staff. Sources outside the first lady's government office said most of that staff was skeptical of -- and in some cases outright opposed to -- her Senate candidacy. Aides within that office said their advice highlighted the potential hardships of running for and serving in the Senate, but they were supportive of a candidacy once she chose to pursue it.
Melanne Verveer, Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, said ethics rules about the political activities of government officials mean that "as the campaign gets underway, the role of her official staff is certainly circumscribed." But she said her staff does not feel overshadowed by the incipient campaign.
At a time when many veterans of the Clinton White House team have long since reached the point of exhaustion, political consultant James Carville said he is not surprised that some people close to her are signing up for more. Hillary Clinton's office, he noted, has been less prone than President Clinton's to leaks, or public criticism from wounded former aides. "I'm not sure any of these people who have had their ups and downs with the White House ever had them with her," he said. "Her people have always been very loyal to her."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company