On a recent picture-perfect day by the Atlantic, President Clinton delivered a speech about protecting the nation's shorelines. Off to the side, his chief of staff, John D. Podesta, pulled off his cowboy boots, dug his bare toes into the sand and turned serenely to the early summer sun, paying no heed to the proceedings.

Those who know him say Podesta has every right to bask in balmy rays these days. He took the White House's top staff job shortly before Clinton's impeachment trial began, when it was uncertain whether his boss would survive politically. Podesta helped steer the administration through that storm and into the calmer waters of 1999 and 2000, where Clinton has maintained surprisingly high approval ratings and frequently outmaneuvered the Republican-controlled Congress on budget matters.

The fourth and presumably last of Clinton's chiefs of staff, Podesta, 51, had the lowest public profile when he took the post. Thousands of Washingtonians probably still wouldn't recognize him on the sidewalk. But barring a catastrophe in Clinton's final seven months in office, he may be recorded as the most successful of the four, a fortuitous mix of policy whiz, savvy pol and dogged loyalist who was well-matched to his time and place in White House history.

"I told the president that at the end of his term, I thought he would rank John as No. 1" among the four chiefs of staff, said Erskine Bowles, Podesta's immediate predecessor. "I am an unabashed and complete and total fan of John Podesta. He's got a heart as big as the sky, and almost no ego."

A few White House staffers might take issue with that assessment, given Podesta's tendency to turn fiercely frosty when he thinks an assistant has erred. But even when offered the protection of anonymity, people who know him well are almost universal in praising his skills and work ethic, even if they don't always agree with him philosophically.

They cite his ability to oversee an array of complex issues, supervise a staff of bright, ambitious people and keep the White House reasonably well-focused on a handful of priorities despite the president's inclination to leap from subject to subject. His workload has grown larger in recent months as several senior officials have left the administration.

One of them is Doug Sosnik, a top political adviser who served under all four chiefs of staff--and who couldn't resist a poke at Podesta's rail-thin frame even as he saluted him. "No chief of staff has carried as big a load as John Podesta has on his skinny shoulders," said Sosnik, now an executive with the National Basketball Association.

Podesta is well-served, he said, by a deep interest in subjects that many find boring or daunting, such as agriculture, technology and national security.

"There's no detail too small for John Podesta," Sosnik said, "and virtually everything that goes out that administration's door has come across his desk."

He said Podesta has a political sixth sense that has helped the Clinton White House weather a succession of controversies. Sometimes in meetings he would tap his nose, Sosnik said, a signal that he smelled a new problem in the winds. "He was saying 'I can feel it coming,' " Sosnik said.

Not surprisingly, Republican activists often take issue with Podesta, who hails from a staunchly Democratic blue-collar family from Chicago. But GOP leaders fault him only for his partisanship, not his integrity or tactics.

"He plays hardball," said one prominent Republican congressional aide. "We have found it's important for us to deal directly with Clinton. It's much more difficult if Podesta is in the room, because he will try to come in with a much more partisan edge."

A grandson of immigrants from Greece and Italy, Podesta is an old-school Democrat, more liberal than the centrists of Clinton's ilk. This has caused occasional tension in the White House, associates say, but Podesta faithfully carries out the president's agenda when crunch time comes.

For example, in Clinton's hard-fought battle to bring China into the World Trade Organization, Podesta sympathized with organized labor's objections to China's treatment of its workers and the possible loss of U.S. jobs, associates said. When Clinton almost made a China trade deal in April 1999, they said, Podesta was among those urging caution, in part because he didn't want to press congressional Democrats for a difficult vote just after they had helped the president survive impeachment.

But when Clinton renewed the China trade issue this year, Podesta dived energetically into the cause, lobbying House members alongside his top deputy, Steve Ricchetti. The House vote to grant permanent trade benefits to China dismayed Podesta's old friends in labor, but they didn't hold it against him personally, saying he had dealt with them honestly and forthrightly.

"He didn't do too well by us" on the trade vote, said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. "But John has been honorable in terms of our discussions, and I think he understands our concerns. He's a pretty bright guy, and he tried to ease the process as best he could."

There are two broad categories of presidential chiefs of staff. One is personally close to the president, often a longtime friend whose presence is reassuring and whose loyalty goes way back. The other type reaches the top by demonstrating clout and political deftness in federal Washington's ways. This person typically has strong ties to Congress and a willingness to shake up a problematic White House staff.

In the first category were Clinton's first and third staff chiefs: Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, the president's boyhood friend and Arkansas utility executive; and Bowles, a southern banker and entrepreneur who headed the Small Business Administration before joining the White House staff.

Podesta falls in the other category, along with the second chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, a prominent Democrat who spent 16 years in the House. Unlike Panetta, however, Podesta built his reputation entirely as a congressional and White House staffer, not as an elected official accustomed to television interviews and public appearances.

Podesta, in fact, takes pride in his low profile. He refused to be interviewed for this article, and asked his deputies to do the same. Even as his clout grew in Washington, he avoided going on TV until he became chief of staff in November 1998. By then, Clinton's impeachment travails virtually forced him onto the Sunday morning talk shows to defend his boss.

His no-nonsense style and solid command of policy won him strong reviews. He has become such a fixture on the Sunday programs that there will be strong pressure on subsequent White House chiefs of staff to follow suit, said Mark Gearan, a former deputy chief of staff and now president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

"I think the next president has to pick a chief of staff with that in mind," Gearan said.

As the Clinton presidency winds down, Podesta has given few hints about what he will do next. Hardly a socialite, he has devoted virtually all his time to his job and his family. (He accepts invitations to the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner only if a host also provides a ticket for his wife, Mary. Otherwise he's content to sit out the affair, which some politicos consider a must.)

He usually has his 82-year-old mother over for Sunday dinner, said his older brother and former lobbying partner, Anthony Podesta. He said John has made a point of spending time with his three children even as he rose through the White House ranks. He saw virtually all of his son's high school football games, for example, and last month took his eldest daughter, Megan, to a state dinner at the White House for the king of Morocco.

John and Mary Podesta will become empty-nesters this fall as their youngest child, Gabe, enters college. "They won't have the kids around anymore," Tony Podesta said. "I think there's a reasonable prospect that John will teach or work at a think tank."

But he conceded that his brother often says--in a voice that seems only half-joking--his biggest goal after the White House is to run a hot-dog stand in Hawaii. Even that might prove too stressful for a presidential chief of staff already getting the feel of beach sand in his toes. His true goal, Tony Podesta speculated, is to run "a crazy T-shirt store on the Big Island."

In Profile

John D. Podesta

Title: Chief of staff, White House.

Age: 51. Born in Chicago.

Family: Married; three children.

Education: Bachelor of science degree, Knox College (Galesburg, Ill.); law degree, Georgetown University.

Previous jobs: Attorney, Justice Department, 1976-77; assistant to director of ACTION, 1978-79; counsel, Senate Judiciary Committee, 1979-86; counsel, Senate Agriculture Committee, 1987-88; lobbyist, Podesta Associates Inc., 1988-93; White House staff secretary, 1993-95; adjunct law professor, Georgetown University, 1995-96; White House deputy chief of staff, 1997-98.