Clinton's Human Shield
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 1998; Page D01
Monica Lewinsky called them the Meanies.
They were the loyal White House staffers -- Nancy Hernreich, Stephen Goodin and Evelyn Lieberman -- who tried to keep her away from President Clinton.
Catastrophically, they failed. But according to independent counsel Kenneth Starr's tawdry yet harrowing narrative of the White House sex scandal, they did their damnedest.
If only, if only, they're left to muse today. If only they'd kept a closer watch, nursed deeper suspicions, worked more nights and weekends. Maybe they could have saved the country from all this trauma, maybe even saved the president from himself. But these are vain musings. It's abundantly clear from Starr's report that they behaved like sterling public servants and did the taxpayers proud.
Yet all their prodigious efforts crumbled before a higher power: lust.
Hernreich, 51, who is director of Oval Office operations and was Clinton's longtime scheduler in the Arkansas governor's office, made no secret of her displeasure with Lewinsky, and the president once warned the 22-year-old intern to give the gatekeeper a wide berth.
Goodin, 30, the president's personal aide, approached Clinton after spotting Lewinsky at a February 1997 radio address and "basically offer[ed] to chase her away, because I didn't know if that was a good use of his time," Goodin told the Starr grand jury. But the president replied: "She's a friend of a political supporter." Minutes later, Clinton and Lewinsky had their fateful, dress-staining sexual encounter.
Lieberman, 54, then-deputy White House chief of staff and a close friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton, fired Lewinsky from the legislative affairs shop after concluding that she was a "clutch" -- the term of art for a hanger-on who sticks to the president like a Post-It note.
None of them responded to interview requests yesterday.
"Do they wonder if they could have prevented it? I'm sure they do -- because it's the kind of thing I think about," former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, who was on duty during much of the trouble, says with a sigh. "They're probably all thinking that there could have been something they could have done. If anybody knew that something like this was going on, if anybody even had an inkling, maybe somebody could have gone directly to the president and said, 'This has got to stop!' " Panetta adds with mirthless laugh: "This is like 'Melrose Place.' "
A former top White House aide says the emotional fallout is especially heavy for the tiny group of staff people closest to the president. "All of us are brokenhearted," this Clintonite says. "This is a man we worked our tails off for, for six years. We gave up a lot to do it, but we also got an enormous amount back, and we have enormous respect for him, and admire the incredible things he has done for the country. This is a devastating and very painful time. . . . We are all permanently scarred."
But the former aide adds: "There is only so much you can do. This is a brilliant president, no question about it, and almost twice my age. He's his own person, and it's a little bit hard -- as a 25-, 26-, 27- or 28-year-old -- to be telling him over and over again what he should and shouldn't do."
Lewinsky gave the staffers the childish nickname in an e-mail message last November. The night of Nov. 12, Lewinsky confided to a friend, Catherine Allday Davis, she and her sometime sex partner "talked for almost an hour" on the phone. She added that the president "thought [N]ancy [Hernreich] (one of the meanies) would be out for a few hours on Thursday and I could come see him then."
Starr's report suggests that while Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, facilitated Lewinsky's furtive comings and goings, it was the president himself who warned his lover about the Meanies. "From some of the President's comments, Ms. Lewinsky gathered that she should try to avoid being seen by several White House employees, including Nancy Hernreich . . . and Stephen Goodin," the report says.
Panetta explains: "The president knew who the watchdogs were, and she stayed away from them."
Chief among the watchdogs was, and is, Hernreich, who grew up well-to-do in Fort Smith, Ark. Meticulous, tough and fiercely loyal -- her intensity masked by a layer of smooth charm -- she goes back with Clinton 22 years. She volunteered in his 1976 campaign for state attorney general. Betsey Wright, Clinton's gubernatorial chief of staff, hired her as scheduler in 1985 after being impressed with her performance as a county organizer in Clinton's 1982 and 1984 reelection campaigns. Hernreich is probably closer to the president than any other aide, with the exception of counselor Bruce Lindsey.
Hernreich's job is basically to orchestrate the minute-by-minute progress of the presidency. At her desk outside the Oval Office, she prepares Clinton's daily schedule, enforces it, decides who gets in to see him and when they must get out. Both Currie and Goodin, who left the White House last year for business in New York City, reported to her. Hernreich's most frequent expression is "No." But she says it with empathy.
Hernreich was keenly aware of Lewinsky, and very much on her guard, but apparently never imagined that the intern and the president would conspire against her carefully deployed defense system -- much less use her office for their escapades. After one bout of oral sex in January 1996, according to Starr's narrative, Clinton kissed Lewinsky goodbye in Hernreich's office. "As Ms. Lewinsky departed," the report continues in a footnote, "she observed the President 'manually stimulating' himself in Ms. Hernreich's office."
"Nancy has always been very protective of the president," Panetta says. "The best way to describe her personality is that she's somebody who's always very pleasant to talk with, but there's a toughness about her that makes clear that you don't mess with her."
"She knows the president better than anybody, with the exception of Bruce [Lindsey] and Hillary," says Andrew Friendly, who preceded Goodin as Clinton's personal assistant and now is a graduate student in business at Northwestern University. "She knows the president's work habits, knows how to get his attention, knows his likes and dislikes, the best way for him to work, knows when not to push, when to push gently, and when to push hard. . . . She always has the president's interest at the forefront, and in politics that is rare.
"She doesn't like wastrels and idlers," says White House press secretary Mike McCurry, who initially "crossed swords" with Hernreich over his own presidential access -- he didn't feel the need to check with her -- until he figured out that he was better off cooperating with her.
"She could keep you covered, let you know things you need to know, so it's always better to stay on her good side," McCurry says. "She doesn't put up with a lot of nonsense, but she's actually a very sweet person -- and a very interesting, complex person."
A trim, attractive jogger who runs up to 10 miles several times a week, Hernreich lives in Cleveland Park. She was divorced years ago from a successful Fort Smith, Ark., broadcasting executive. Her daughter, Ashley, is a senior at Duke University. While Hernreich has an active social life, dating, among others, Democratic Party operative Tony Podesta, her daughter, Wright says, is "the center of her world."
Goodin -- who today is vice president and assistant to the chairman at media mogul Barry Diller's USA Network -- was hardly much older than Hernreich's daughter when he joined Clinton's presidential campaign on the New Hampshire field staff 6 1/2 years ago. Friends say that among people in the inner circle -- most of them decades more experienced than he -- Goodin is likely to be the most wounded by the Lewinsky scandal.
"He has incredible stamina," says a close friend from the White House, noting that Goodin stayed on as Clinton's personal aide for three years. "It's an exhausting job, incredibly demanding" -- not least because it positioned him to take the brunt of Clinton's frequent outbursts of anger. "[Expletive] runs downhill. You become a sponge to absorb it," says the friend. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's because of something someone else has done."
A native Texan, Goodin grew up in a broken home, spent some of his childhood as a latchkey kid in a trailer park. He worked his way through the University of Texas as a waiter and bartender and graduated with a degree in psychology. He is so devoted to UT football that he had a Texas Longhorn tattooed on his ankle. After an unpaid internship in the office of Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), Goodin volunteered in the successful 1991 Senate campaign of Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania, and then followed Wofford's campaign manager Paul Begala, a fellow Texan, to the Clinton camp. He became the president's personal aide in 1994.
Goodin is known as an occasional cutup and a gifted mimic -- who has delighted Hillary Clinton with his spot-on impression of the president. "Stephen is enormously proud of his work for the president," says the friend. "It's an important job. It's terrible to see that job diminished in everyone's mind."
Evelyn Lieberman was the one who enforced the rules, according to her own high standard. A confidant of the first lady, whom she met years ago at the Children's Defense Fund, Lieberman "was like a first sergeant," making sure everyone was doing his or her job, says her former boss Panetta.
Described by admiring associates as a "control freak," she was known to order male staffers to shine their shoes and trim their hair, and send female staffers home to change if they showed up for work too skimpily dressed. "The tyrant of the West Wing," McCurry affectionately called her -- though at times, when she was his deputy, he seemed terrified of her. Even the president was apparently a tad intimidated.
Lieberman sent Lewinsky packing in early 1996 because the young new staffer was "spending too much time around the West Wing" and creating an appearance problem, according to the Starr report. Clinton then raised the subject of Lewinsky's dismissal with the deputy chief of staff.
Lieberman told Starr's grand jury that the president informed her, " 'I got a call about' -- I don't know if he said her name. He said maybe ' -- an intern you fired.' And she was evidently very upset about it. He said, 'Do you know anything about this?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Who fired her?' I said, 'I did.' And he said, 'Oh, okay.' " Clinton dropped the matter.
"That's vintage Evelyn," says Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), for whom the Long Islander worked as press secretary before joining Hillary Clinton's staff at the White House. "She is absolutely protective of your interests and she is always totally, unabashedly frank with you. If I ever said something stupid, she'd close the door and go, 'What the hell did you say a damn-fool thing like that for?' "
In late 1996, Lieberman left the White House to become director of the Voice of America, and Clinton said at her swearing-in: "Her unique strong voice has reverberated throughout the White House. . . . Evelyn has a special talent for cutting to the chase and getting to truth."
According to Starr's report, that quality was on display long after Lewinsky's dismissal, when the former intern showed up on the South Lawn, a guest of Betty Currie's, to watch Clinton depart on the presidential helicopter. Lieberman spotted Lewinsky and turned on Currie.
"What are you -- nuts?"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company