John A. Koskinen, the president's Y2K troubleshooter, is on the stage at the Virginia Beach Pavilion, a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. He is delivering the mixed message of Y2K.
The nation, he reassures a crowd of about 200 concerned and curious residents of this resort city, faces "virtually no risk" of catastrophic computer failures in electric power, telephone service, bank transactions and airline travel come Jan. 1. But, he adds, "no one can guarantee that everything will work," so communities and individuals need to prepare for possible Y2K disruptions to their lives.
Afterwards, Vicky Kresinske of Chesapeake says, "I just wish people had definitive answers." Still, she thinks Koskinen "was great" in addressing Y2K worries voiced by the Tidewater Virginians. "I appreciate your personality," she blurts out as he departs.
He smiles. It's the same energetic grin Koskinen has flashed at contrary Cabinet officers, skeptical members of Congress and Internet doomsayers. It has, for the most part, been a winning smile. It also has masked the tedious, grinding hard work of preparing the nation's computer systems for the year 2000.
Just 15 days from now, Koskinen will face his technological moment of truth. The success or failure of all his work at mobilizing the government and the private sector will be judged then.
For all the uncertainty about Y2K, he appears relaxed, willing to make a bit of lighthearted fun out of his predicament.
He is often asked, he said, "How did you get stuck with this job . . . being the person they'll point fingers at if everything goes wrong, being the person no one will remember if things go right?"
"Some have called it one of the great bag-holding jobs of all time," he tells a Washington audience.
There was little laughing 21 months ago, when skeptics on Capitol Hill and in the basements of the bureaucracy doubted Koskinen could spur the government and industry to attack the millennium bug. But the government and large private sector organizations launched a massive campaign, spending about $100 billion to fix millions of lines of software and computers.
Koskinen steered this mobilization for much of the last year with no more than a dozen aides, running a low-profile operation out of a second-floor office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. Early on, he accepted as fact that his name (sounds like KAHZ-kin-in) would almost always get mispronounced by first-time visitors.
His workday usually stretches from 8 a.m. until nearly 11 p.m., and the office routine includes a luncheon plate of fresh fruit piled around a mound of cottage cheese, bought at the White House Mess.
In between meetings and conference calls, Koskinen, 60, sends out more than 100 e-mails on an average day--a substantial change in work habits for a person who five years ago did not know how to use word-processing programs on an office computer.
This month, the long workdays are getting even longer. Koskinen's staff has soared to about 200--political appointees, technology experts and public affairs officers drawn from around the government. They will help run a $50 million command center, just a few blocks from the White House, that will operate around the clock starting Dec. 30 and continuing into the first few days of January.
As 1999 ends, Koskinen and key administration officials will be inside a glass-walled, high-tech war room, using flat-screen computers to assess Y2K data pouring in from around the world.
Embassies and international groups will funnel information to the State Department, which will digest and compress it for use by Koskinen's staff.
Domestic agencies, including the Federal Reserve Board, the Energy and Transportation departments, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will collect Y2K reports from state and local governments and private sector groups and transmit them to the center.
Critical infrastructure sectors--airlines, electric power, banks and retail, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and telecommunications--will staff their own "industry information centers" and provide updates to the government.
Since he began work in March 1998 as chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, Koskinen has organized more than 25 task forces to reach out to industry groups, corporations, the United Nations and foreign trading partners. He has collected confidential industry information to assess potential Y2K risks and convened closed-door meetings to educate himself about the Y2K problems facing chemical plants, the pharmaceutical industry and industrial plants dependent on embedded systems.
In short, he has become the nation's Y2K czar.
This "drive to do more," as Koskinen calls it, began when he was 8 years old and conned his parents into letting him have a newspaper route. In grade school, Koskinen was delivering newspapers to 50 homes, mowing 15 lawns a week and taking piano, accordion, violin and clarinet lessons. And he found time to join the Boy Scouts.
In high school, he led the 1950s lifestyle of most teenagers in Ashland, Ky. He played football, joined the debate team, served as student council president, sang in the school chorus, appeared in school plays and held an after-school job.
His father died before his senior year in high school, and Koskinen turned down Harvard for Duke University, which provided a better scholarship package. He has been loyal to Duke, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, ever since. The Koskinens recently set up a $2.5 million trust that Duke can use to support female student athletes and to renovate its soccer and lacrosse stadium.
Koskinen went from Duke to Yale for law school, where Charles Halpern, president of the nonprofit Nathan Cummings Foundation, said his friend "was a fixture in the library, where he would underline his text with a ruler. . . . He had a very orderly mind."
Yale classmates included the future California governor Jerry Brown, future Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, future Colorado senator Gary Hart, future member of Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton and onetime Baltimore Orioles owner Eli Jacobs. "John felt himself a little behind the eight ball having come from the small-town border state of Ashland, Kentucky, but it was quickly clear to most of us that he was exceptionally gifted," Halpern said.
His life after Yale included legal and Capitol Hill work and then a lucrative 25-year career at the Palmieri Co., which specialized in restructuring financially troubled companies.
"He is very straight-lined in the sense that he knows where he wants to go and is not easily deflected," said Victor H. Palmieri, his business partner. "People find him a pleasure to work with and extremely good-humored and able to deal with highly stressful situations. . . . He has the athlete's ability to get through about anything."
Koskinen's free time often goes to tennis (he built his own court near his Northwest D.C. home), soccer (he chaired the D.C. host committee for the 1994 World Cup) and reading books or listening to music on vinyl records.
He "doesn't feel there is a need for a lot of clothes," lamented Patricia Koskinen, his wife and a reading research specialist at the University of Maryland. Their daughter put a stop to paisley ties, long a wardrobe favorite, after seeing him on a TV news program.
Koskinen's introduction to vast computer networks came during his first stint in the Clinton administration, when he served as deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. Koskinen won widespread praise from colleagues for his handling of two government shutdowns during the 1995-96 budget war between President Clinton and congressional Republicans.
Few knew Koskinen had persevered through a more stressful crisis the previous year. From August to December 1994, Patricia Koskinen battled breast cancer, with her treatments, including a bone marrow transplant, at Duke University Hospital. Friends took turns at the hospital during weekdays, and Koskinen would arrive for weekend visits. He lugged along his laptop, so he could conduct government business.
With his wife back in good health, Koskinen resigned from the OMB in 1997 for what he called a "mini-sabbatical." The couple explored the Canadian Rockies, Japan, China and South America. Then, while at an Amsterdam airport hotel in January 1998, he took a call from White House officials.
Clinton and Vice President Gore wanted him back--as the crisis manager for Y2K.
But from the start, Koskinen has avoided using the words "crisis" and "panic" when talking about Y2K. The problem could cause systems using two-digit date fields to interpret "00" as 1900, not 2000, and either crash or otherwise malfunction.
"It is not a national crisis," Koskinen said during an interview. "It is a national challenge and, stepping back, the most significant management challenge confronting the world since the Second World War, because it affects everybody all at once. We have to worry about 180 countries all at one time. You have to worry about what is going to happen in 50 states."
He repeats what he has told Congress and citizen groups. "We do not have any evidence and we do not think there are going to be national failures--the power grids aren't going down, the telecom system isn't going to stop."
But that does not rule out the risk of local problems. "No one can guarantee anything. . . . This is a complicated problem.
"You can't say Y2K is a major disaster about to happen. Because that is not the issue. Is Y2K a major problem for some organizations about to happen? The answer is yes, and the question is, which organizations. And that is what we're trying to get people focused on."
Some family friends have been curious about what personal preparations Koskinen plans for the New Year's weekend, and when they ask, Patricia Koskinen said he tells them the same thing he says in public: Do not hoard cash or stockpile supplies, but prepare as you would for a three-day winter storm.
She paused and said, "Then they ask me secretly, what will I do?"
CAPTION: John A. Koskinen, President Clinton's Y2K "crisis" manager, prefers to look at the Year 2000 computer problem as a challenge.
CAPTION: John A. Koskinen, who says that people should prepare for Y2K as they would prepare for a three-day winter storm, addresses the Council on Excellence in Government in September. His staff has soared to about 200 people.