President Chooses Podesta as Top Aide
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 1998; Page A17
President Clinton yesterday named John D. Podesta as his fourth White House chief of staff, elevating to a highly public role a veteran Democratic operative who rose by working on a succession of critical and sometimes thankless behind-the-scenes jobs.
A president with a penchant for last-minute personnel surprises took the predictable course at a morning Rose Garden announcement. Podesta had been regarded by colleagues as the all-but-inevitable choice to replace departing Chief of Staff Erksine B. Bowles.
The surprise came from Podesta himself. The 49-year-old lawyer and Chicago native, known for his hard-nosed style and sardonic sense of humor, struck a highly sentimental note as he recalled his family's immigrant, woking-class roots. "I know what it meant for my grandparents to struggle to come to America at the turn of the century and then to struggle again to survive here, speaking only broken English," he said. "I know that my father had to quit high school after one year to help support his family. And I know that every day he worked hard on a factory floor, always believing in the American dream that his children would be better off than he was."
His children did do better. Podesta and his older brother, Anthony, ran a successful political consulting firm, Podesta Associates. Before that, he worked on presidential campaigns as far back as George S. McGovern's in 1972, and held high-level Senate staff positions as counsel for both the Judiciary and Agriculture committees. He has worked closely with such people as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
Podesta came into the first-term Clinton White House with a title, staff secretary, that hardly hinted at the responsibilities he assumed. He took on damage control responsibilities for such controversies as Whitewater and the White House travel office firings.
Podesta left the White House late in the first term to teach a class at Georgetown University Law School. But he returned as a deputy chief of staff in the second term. Under Bowles's highly delegated management style, Podesta became immersed in such disparate issues as NATO expansion and encryption technology policy.
Inevitably, however, his scandal portfolio kept returning. In 1997, he supervised the White House response to the Democratic fund-raising controversy. In 1998, he has been preoccupied with the Monica S. Lewinsky furor,_an issue that is certain to keep him busy in his new post as well.
Within the White House, Podesta is known for his contradictions. With a demanding leadership style and a sometimes mercurial temperament, some subordinates say he can be intimidating. Yet he also has a quirky, whimsical side that many colleagues find endearing. A movie buff, he got up in the middle of the night last year to wait on the sidewalk to buy tickets for that day's premiere of "Independence Day." Although his children are past the amusement park phase, Podesta and his wife, Mary, sometimes travel by themselves to Paramount's Kings Dominion near Richmond to thrill themselves on the roller coasters.
That fondness for roller coasters "will certainly serve him well here," Clinton joked yesterday.
"He has a tough hide, a dry wit, and a lot of patience in dealing with the president," Clinton said.
While Podesta commands wide respect within the White House, some officials speculated that Clinton, weakened by the Lewinsky controversy, would turn to a prominent public figure, such as a former member of Congress, to head the White House.
But Bowles, who is returning to his native North Carolina to resume his business career and explore running for governor in 2000, recommended months ago that Podesta replace him, a senior White House official said. "I could not be leaving you in better hands, my friend," he told Clinton at yesterday's ceremony.
Bowles, a philosophical moderate compared to the more traditionally liberal Podesta, drew wide praise, especially from Republicans, for negotiating the 1997 balanced-budget agreement. He was frustrated on other projects, such as last year's failed effort to pass legislation giving Clinton "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements, and this year's defeated tobacco legislation.
Podesta joked about his and Bowles's strikingly different personal styles. "Bowles, blue blood. Podesta, blue collar," he cracked. "No one ever got confused about which one of us had a passion for golf, and which one of us had a passion for amusement parks."
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