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Crisis Quarterback: Gregory Craig Is Calling the Plays On Clinton's Team

By Lloyd Grove and John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 19, 1998; Page D01

Gregory B. Craig's friends were perplexed two months ago when he gave up one of the most prestigious jobs in Washington to take one of the most troublesome: Why descend from the rarefied aerie of foreign policy into the squalid mess of a sex scandal?

Even Craig -- who'll be in the game today as President Clinton's designated "quarterback" when the House Judiciary Committee opens its impeachment hearings -- wasn't eager for the new assignment.

"I hope you won't think it amiss if I tell you I'm not enthusiastic," he recalls telling John Podesta, then deputy White House chief of staff, when Podesta asked him in early September to consider leading Clinton's defense team in the impeachment inquiry. "John said, 'Well, just think about it.' So I kept thinking about it -- and my enthusiasm didn't grow."

A boyish 53-year-old with tousled gray hair, Craig was the State Department's director of policy planning, a post that has been an intellectual playground for such fabled visionaries as George Kennan and Paul Nitze. He also served as the U.S. special coordinator on Tibet, managing a critical piece of the Sino-American relationship. These plum assignments were the logical extension of Craig's quarter-century as a blue-chip Washington lawyer, influential Senate staffer and key player in the foreign policy establishment.

But getting mixed up in Clinton's personal problems struck some as a lousy career move. Moreover, Craig was joining a White House staff simmering with factional disputes since the Monica Lewinsky matter became public in January.

Yet Craig was hardly new to the business of rescuing public figures from perilous personal crises. While at the powerhouse law firm of Williams & Connolly -- where he was a partner of David Kendall, now Clinton's private attorney -- Craig safely guided his former boss, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), through hazardous televised testimony in the 1991 Palm Beach rape trial of nephew William Kennedy Smith.

"There's no one I'd rather be with in a crisis," says Ethel Kennedy, another member of the famous clan who has relied on Craig's advice in recent years. "He's just wonderful and very comforting, no matter how tough the problems you're dealing with. He never kind of loses it. He's so rational, says what he has to say very clearly, and he's always on your side."

Craig brought along his best bedside manner when Clinton summoned him to the White House residence on the night of Sept. 10 -- the day after independent counsel Kenneth Starr's lurid report to Congress was published on the World Wide Web. On a balcony overlooking the South Lawn, Clinton and Craig sat talking for two hours.

"He was in great pain," Craig recalls. "He was, I think, profoundly troubled at his own failures, at his own shortcomings, and really at a loss about what to do, how to handle it. And I told him he really needed to talk about it. And he asked for my help. And I said I've got to talk to my wife."

Craig wasn't a Clinton intimate. He'd known him casually at Yale Law School, but he'd been friendlier with Clinton's girlfriend, Hillary Rodham -- like Craig, originally a member of the Class of '72. (She and Clinton received their degrees in 1973.) In the intervening years, they'd had little contact.

Indeed, Craig wasn't even the top prospect for the job. Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) and prominent Democratic attorney Richard Ben-Veniste were also sounded out for the $125,000-a-year position.

But Craig and his wife, graphic designer Derry Craig, quickly concluded that he couldn't ignore Clinton's SOS.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has known Craig since the early 1980s, says the decision was easy. "Both Greg and I have the same view -- that it is very important to do what is important for the president," says Albright, who tapped him to be her policy planning chief in 1997. "He has the ability to look at issues from a different perspective and he's very pragmatic and very smart."

Craig is pragmatic enough not to bother defending the president's role in the Lewinsky affair. "It is shocking, and it's terribly wrong what he did," Craig says of Clinton's extramarital fling with the twenty-something former White House intern and his subsequent efforts to cover it up. "He perhaps was not the first to acknowledge it, but now that he's acknowledged it, I think he's his toughest judge.

"But the real question is whether the conduct, however blameworthy it might be, rises to the level of an impeachable offense," he continues. "One thing that the American people do together politically at any given time is to elect a president. Do you reverse the solemn judgment of the American people?"

Clearly not, Craig believes -- a sentiment loudly echoed in every recent public opinion poll. The recent congressional elections -- in which the GOP tried to take advantage of Clinton's troubles and paid dearly -- hammered the point home.

AN A-TEAM PLAYER

Still, the task of coordinating the White House impeachment defense remains enormously complicated -- at least as tricky as being "the quarterback," the position Clinton assigned to Craig when he announced his new recruit.

From a spacious West Wing office once occupied by the first lady's staff, Craig oversees the legal, political and congressional responses to the ever-changing realities of the congressional proceeding while trying to formulate an exit strategy. Within the bounds of constitutional propriety, he must gauge which result is possible short of impeachment: censure, some other sanction, or no sanction at all?

Craig also directs the public relations side, arguing the president's case to broadcast and print journalists, and making sure that other White House spin doctors are advancing the same arguments. On the organizational chart, he reports to the president, regularly consults with Chief of Staff Podesta, and serves as a bridge and sometime buffer between the lawyers and the political operatives.

With his seasoning as a trial lawyer (he worked on the defense team of would-be presidential assassin John W. Hinckley Jr.) and as a congressional aide (Kennedy's top foreign policy adviser in the late 1980s), Craig is a hybrid of the legal and political. He was hired in part to quiet the clash between these warring factions in the White House.

Private attorney Kendall and White House counsel Charles Ruff preferred to work in secrecy, often keeping key information from the political team, and treated Clinton's entanglement as a strictly legal matter when it was the province of Starr and the federal grand jury. As the Lewinsky probe has moved increasingly into the public arena, with Congress releasing video- and audiotapes and preparing for televised hearings, the defense effort has tilted toward the media-oriented political operatives.

Yet when Craig arrived, he was seen initially as an intruder by these very operatives. Podesta, who'd been supervising the political side of the impeachment defense, seemed decidedly wary, and Craig's new colleagues pointedly mocked him with the nickname "QB."

"If you're coming in as the new quarterback," says one senior White House official, "all the tight ends and running backs who have been on the team for eight months aren't necessarily all that eager to greet you."

"There's inevitably a bump and grind when someone new comes into an established organization," says former senior adviser Rahm Emanuel, one of the initial skeptics.

"The rap on Greg was that this was some sort of pretty boy," says former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, who has known Craig since both were activists in the anti-war movement of the 1960s. "There was some degree of resentment among the old hands . . . because he was just brought in from above. But I think they underestimated him. They soon found out that Greg Craig is much more than a pretty boy. He's a very good lawyer. He also has a very good political ear."

Craig has passed his White House hazing. His collegial style, colleagues said, has made him difficult not to like. Podesta, since named to the top White House staff job, has warmly embraced Craig's arrival. "I thought he had political skill, I thought he understood the Hill, but I thought he was also an experienced lawyer who would have credibility with Chuck [Ruff] and David [Kendall]," Podesta says.

Even so, several White House sources say Craig and Ruff had trouble settling into a smooth working relationship. Each man behaved as if he were the one in charge. Strategy sessions are held in Ruff's office, but Craig often leads the discussion.

Their professional styles are also in conflict, according to officials familiar with both. Ruff believes clients are almost always served by discretion, and that disputes are best resolved in private -- or, failing that, by presenting arguments before a court of law rather than in front of a camera. Craig sees impeachment as an inherently political process without clear-cut rules but requiring aggressive PR.

Craig's more confrontational style was evident as the two prepared for an Oct. 21 meeting on Capitol Hill with lawyers for the House Judiciary Committee. The question was: Would the White House lawyers come out attacking the alleged unfairness of the impeachment inquiry, as Craig wanted, or would they confine themselves to a few bland words about the cordiality of the session and their hopes for a pleasant working relationship with the committee lawyers?

"There was a little bit of tension -- who should be speaking, how tough it should be -- that got resolved before the meeting," says a senior White House official.

After the meeting, Craig came out swinging, castigating Republicans for refusing to define in advance what type of presidential misconduct would constitute an impeachable offense.

"That's like a game being played with the rules being made by one side as the game goes along," Craig said before the cameras. "It's like attacking a man who is blindfolded and handcuffed."

NOT IN EDEN ANYMORE

One of the traits that may make Craig an effective advocate for Clinton is a refreshing lack of cynicism, as though he actually believed what he's saying.

"This young man is Adam before the Fall," Craig's history professor at Exeter wrote in support of his application to Harvard.

"Still wide-eyed, still idealistic, still innocent," Craig says, acknowledging the caricature with a chuckle. "I think that's the way I was perceived. But there has always been enormous idealism in my value system. And I may have worn it on my sleeve a little bit."

But some people say Craig has taken a big bite of the apple.

TransAfrica President Randall Robinson lavished praise on Craig for his "pivotal" role as Kennedy's aide in 1986, helping reach the winning margin in Congress to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. But years later, Robinson was perturbed when Craig showed up in his office with two brothers from the Mevs family, well-connected Haitian oligarchs. Craig, their paid lobbyist, was attempting to grease their access to the American opinion leaders and policymakers who imposed economic sanctions on Haiti after the military coup against the country's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"I expressed to Greg my surprise at his relationship with these people," Robinson says. "They obviously had supported the coup, and the family had been established in wealth by Papa Doc Duvalier," the brutal dictator of the 1950s and '60s. "We were fighting to restore democracy, and here was Greg, representing the interests of those who benefited from its absence."

Craig says the situation was far more complicated. The Mevs "are decent people," he says, arguing that they didn't support the coup, tried to encourage human rights and recently established a free clinic to serve the Haitian slums. "They were trying to do the best thing for the country and they stuck their necks out much more than any other members of that elite did. . . . I tried to get them to stick their necks out. I said, 'You guys have really got to get more involved in the situation down there, because as long as the business community hangs back and lets the military run the show, your country is going to go down the tubes.' "

In the mid-'60s Craig registered black voters in Mississippi, tutored kids in Harlem and became Harvard's most widely quoted student leader in opposition to the Vietnam War. He was a conservative by Cambridge standards, engaging in a civilized campus debate once with United Nations Ambassador Arthur Goldberg and expressing measured disapproval for the Harvard students who shouted down the visiting defense secretary, Robert McNamara.

Like many in his generation, he considered claiming conscientious objector status to avoid military service, but ultimately submitted himself to his draft board in Exeter, N.H. "I thought it was the only honorable thing to do," he says. It may be a reflection of Craig's golden-boy existence that he received a medical deferment for a damaged shoulder -- the result of a prep-school lacrosse injury.

Craig is the son of Yankee Republicans -- his maternal grandfather toiled in the Hoover administration -- and was born at the Navy hospital in Norfolk, where his father, William Craig, was an officer during World War II. He grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., where his father, a third-generation Vermonter who'd been a star football player at Middlebury College, was Stanford University's dean of men. It was here that Greg came under the influence of Stanford's associate dean, liberal activist Allard Lowenstein, who inspired Ickes, Barney Frank and a host of others who today rank among Washington's movers and shakers.

After graduating from Yale Law School, Craig joined them, becoming a protege of both Joe Califano and the late Edward Bennett Williams, two larger-than-life litigators who briefly practiced together. Since 1972, Craig has quit Williams & Connolly three times -- once to follow his wife (with whom he has five children and a rambling Cleveland Park house) back to Yale so she could get her master's degree in art. The second time it was to work for Kennedy, and the third was to join the State Department.

In his role as the department's resident Tibet expert, Craig struck up a friendship with Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's personal representative in Washington. "Having a discussion with Greg is good practice for negotiating with the Chinese," Gyari jokes.

He visited Craig at the White House the day after the Nov. 3 election that resulted in, among other things, the abrupt end of Speaker Newt Gingrich's House career and the decision of Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde to rein in the impeachment hearings from their preelection grandeur.

Gyari recounts: "I remember making the remark, 'Greg, it looks like maybe you're coming back soon!' He just laughed."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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