John Podesta has been questioned before a federal grand jury, he has been obliged to correct the president of the United States -- veeerry carefully -- he has been assigned to explain the First Lady's commodities trading, and then to change his explanation. And he is a Whitewater success story. This has been life among the ruins of the Clinton administration's early Whitewater damage control. Podesta's job is to clean up the mess that was made the first time around. But so extensive was the mess that the cleaning man got dirty.
A lot of insiders say Podesta has the worst job in Washington. They're not talking about his official role. Officially, he is White House staff secretary -- one of those gray but powerful jobs. (The staff secretary controls the paper going to and from the president, and is best known as the guy with the arm that reaches into famous scenes, like the Israeli-PLO peace accord signing, to put a historic document on the president's desk.) What folks call the worst job in Washington is Podesta's unofficial duty: White House cleanup chief. When bombs go off in the nation's capital, most people assume the classic Washington position -- duck your head and cover your posterior. Podesta shoulders a shovel and trudges into the rubble. Ever since subpoenas began arriving at the White House, and the administration began to understand that finger-wagging and wounded pleas would not solve the crisis, Podesta has been trying to pull together documents, recreate long-lost wheelings and dealings, and generally patch up the image of a dissembling White House. Slowly, with frequent setbacks, he may be making some progress. The most obvious sign came late last month, when Hillary Rodham Clinton called a news conference and fielded Whitewater questions for an hour and a quarter. As she spoke, Podesta -- an intense, slight man with sharp features and a quick laugh -- watched happily from the edge of the room. Much of the senior White House staff was caught flat-footed by the news conference; Podesta helped in the First Lady's preparation. Along with deputy White House counsel Joel Klein and Clinton family lawyer David Kendall, Podesta fields scores of telephone calls each day from reporters. Instead of scolding them, he generally tries to answer their questions. He has collected and released hundreds of pages of documents: old tax returns, commodities trading records, Whitewater corporate tax documents. "There's been a distinct change of approach since John's taken on this job," said one senior administration official. "Since John has gotten in, you've seen a fairly aggressive presentation of facts and documents, and a tightly coordinated effort." Colleagues at the White House give Podesta high marks for pooling the Whitewater frenzy in a few offices -- giving the rest of the staff a chance to tackle other tasks. As Podesta says: "People are back to business, and I'm absorbing most of the arrows." One veteran Democrat, knowledgeable of the inner workings at the White House, called Podesta's appearance as Whitewater troubleshooter "the most hopeful sign in a long time" that the administration might calm the tempest. Why? "He's strong as a political organizer, strong as a lawyer. He knows Congress, and he can talk to the press. He has the probity. And he understands a lawyer's job is simple: to solve your client's problem." Podesta's strategy is simple. Get the facts and make them your weapon. An example of the Podesta style came recently: He and Kendall were plowing through Hillary Clinton's investment records, and they discovered a profit on which the Clintons failed to pay taxes in their 1980 return. Fact was, the statue of limitations was long past; moreover, an Internal Revenue Service auditor had approved the Clintons' 1980 return. Legally, they were on solid ground. But Podesta hustled to 'fess up. Painful as it was, it was better than having some newspaper reporter discover the unpaid tax. An old foul-up is better than a fresh expose. Former White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum probably would not have handled it this way. When he was dealing with Whitewater, Nussbaum -- an accomplished Wall Street lawyer -- preferred the classic Wall Street approach: Lock the files, hunker down, occasionally flip your enemies a middle-finger salute. New York's ways are not Washington's ways. Here, we bury people in paper and make nice by phone. "You've got a lot of people who can sit down and tell you the law," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Podesta's boss for a number of years. "But they don't have a sense of the political ramifications." Podesta learned by doing, coming up through Democratic Party ranks on the heels of his older brother, Tony, a longtime political strategist. In state and national campaigns spanning a generation -- from Eugene McCarthy's presidential bid in 1968 to the Clinton victory in 1992 -- Podesta, 45, learned the art of the sound bite, the care and feeding of the press, the importance of answering fire with fire (without wounding friends). As Leahy's top aide on the Judiciary Committee, and later chief counsel to the Senate Agriculture Committee, Podesta also mastered the fine print of government. Over time, he became the rare Washington figure who can match the nerds detail-for-detail on, say, intellectual property law in the digital age and hatch strategy with the backroom politicos. "John's both a rigorous lawyer and good pol and they don't usually go together," said Leslie Dach, who worked with Podesta on Michael S. Dukakis's ill-fated 1988 presidential campaign. "He can memorize bank records and also know how they'll play in Peoria." The lousy jobs began coming his way almost a year ago: The first mess was the travel office. Seven employees of the White House travel office had been fired, and the press was full of charges of cronyism, money-grubbing, manipulation of the FBI. Normally, the White House counsel's office would handle it, but Nussbaum's staff was involved. Enter Podesta. With his deputy, Todd Stern, Podesta went from office to office around the White House asking people how they managed to screw up so badly. Then he published his findings. He linked important people -- like Vince Foster, presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos, even the First Lady herself -- to the debacle. Annoy your colleagues, embarrass your boss ... the worst job in town. Except: Podesta pulled it off. His come-clean strategy deflated the issue. "It ended the story," Stephanopoulos said. Podesta then was called in to preserve the nomination of Joycelyn Elders to be surgeon general, when it seemed like Elders might talk herself out of the job. Then he shepherded William Gould's nomination to head the National Labor Relations Board through a pack of grumbling conservative senators. Next, he persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that resort owner M. Larry Lawrence had qualifications to be an ambassador beyond writing fat checks to the president's party. Then came Whitewater. Podesta has made mistakes, including one doozy. When he announced the tax error, he produced supporting documents, which undermined an earlier description of one Clinton commodities trading account. A reporter asked if the new material made the old version "inoperative." And Podesta confirmed: "That is inoperative." "I can't believe you repeated it!" a colleague said to him after the briefing. Only then did the scope of his error sink in: "Inoperative" is a Watergate word. He had echoed the quote of a Nixon aide. "And the blood drained out of my face," Podesta recalled. But in a White House where gaffes often turn into gaping wounds, Podesta minimized the damage. Since uttering the fateful word, Podesta has jumped on any reporter who has tried to use "inoperative" to stand for anything beyond the specific details of a single ancient commodities account. For example, he fired off a letter chiding a Washington Post columnist: "I have to publicly eat my mistakes. I hope you acknowledge yours." Podesta denies he has the worst job in Washington. "I actually like defending the president and the First Lady and the administration," he said. But Whitewater is dramatically more complex than his earlier crises: The stakes are higher, more people are watching, the questions are more complicated, the documentation is more sketchy. Sometimes, Podesta says, when he ventures into the First Lady's office with the latest question about her finances, Mrs. Clinton slaps her hand to her forehead and, exasperated, says, "I just can't remember any more!" (Or words to that effect.) Podesta allows that he doesn't know all the answers -- and so each quiet Whitewater day feels like the slow climb to the top of a roller coaster. "I'm trying to get the truth as best I can," he said recently. "And I believe in the truth of our position. We're trying to get information out quickly, to avoid the appearance of stonewalling. As we gather more information, we correct our mistakes. "I expect we'll take some more hits before it is over," he said, "but I believe we are going to get through it."