Philippe Reines looked right at home.
At one end of a wood-paneled hallway in the executive suites of the State Department, Katie Couric frantically prepared for her final “CBS Evening News” interview with Reines’s boss, Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the other end, the secretary of state arrived with confidant Huma Abedin. Reines strolled over and joined the pair, shielding Clinton as she stretched her arms to decompress.
The contraction of Clinton’s inner circle over the past decade has magnified the role of Reines, the longest-serving protector of her image. The self-promoting 41-year-old bachelor and the press-scarred senior stateswoman share a bond forged by political civil wars, distrust of the media and an absolute reliance on allegiance. Reines (pronounced RYE-ness), a master practitioner of self-preservation and the beneficiary of Clinton’s almost maternal protection, is Hillaryland’s ultimate survivor.
As the impromptu prep session moved into Clinton’s private chamber, Reines reminded Clinton, who has said she will leave her post in 2012, to expect a question about her plans for the future.
Under the boom mikes, the question materialized as Reines predicted. “What are you going to do?” Couric asked. “Well, I don’t know,” said Clinton, smiling. “I was thinking maybe take your job.”
After the interview, Clinton let loose with her trademark burst of stalling laughter when asked to describe her sometimes rocky relationship with Reines.
“Oh, you know,” she said. “I only do what Philippe tells me, so if I’m not supposed to talk, I won’t talk. How’s that?”
Reines, as is often the case, spoke for her.
By his own account, Reines has been “hired, fired, forgiven, benched, promoted and promoted again.” He is currently Clinton’s deputy assistant secretary for strategic communications and has been the caretaker of her public image through her iterations as rookie senator, front-runner presidential candidate, sore loser and resurgent secretary of state.
He is, he says, part of the “family” of Clinton lifers. But the famously boyish native New Yorker also belongs to a more extended and, if possible, more dysfunctional family of politicos, operatives, staffers, reporters, TV bookers, media types, government officials and frosted society scenesters. And he bears some of their less appealing traits: an addiction to background dish, media recognition and proximity to power.
The counterweight to Reines’s reputation for disinformation and dining out on the Clinton name is his profound loyalty to his adoptive clans. For that, he is Clinton’s favorite son and the life of his perpetual D.C. party.
Now, as Reines issues public — and often disregarded — denials that Clinton will either leave office to lead the World Bank or take another shot at the White House in 2016, the operatives who make Washington work have a more pressing question: Will the Peter Pan of Hillaryland move on?
“I need to start thinking about it,” Reines said, sitting in a courtyard at the State Department. His self-deprecating wit and youthful charm remain intact, but he no longer looks younger than his years. Reines filled out his pinstriped suit. The darkness under his eyes suggested years of internecine turf battles and hundreds of thousands of Clinton air miles.
Reines set his BlackBerry aside and grew contemplative. The self-proclaimed scoundrel rued a failed relationship and said that a wife and kids is “something that I want.” The currency of inside information has also lost its luster. “I’d like to finally make some money,” he said. “Which I have not done working for the federal government for nine years.”
But in at least one respect, Reines remains a one-woman man. “I would very much like to see what she does next,” Reines said of Clinton. “And if the pattern holds, if she wants me to be a part of it and it’s something I can contribute to, I’d be honored to.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I have relied on Philippe’s judgment, intelligence and wit for nearly a decade,” Clinton said in an e-mail. “As an author, Senator, candidate and now as Secretary of State, I have come to trust his instincts and value his skill as a communicator and counselor. Wherever we go — from Buffalo to Beijing — one thing remains constant: Philippe always has my back.”
Deputy chief of staff Abedin — who has drawn upon Reines’s skill as a spinmeister in recent weeks as her husband, Rep. Anthony Weiner, became embroiled in a sexting scandal — said the secretary of state is often more succinct. When Reines comes up with an unconventional media ploy, Abedin said, Clinton likes to kid him: “ ‘See, Philippe? This is why I keep you around.’ ”
Reines’s critics in the Clinton diaspora are legion. They have multiple theories to explain why Reines has been kept in Clinton’s orbit but never risen to the job of communications director: He’s a master of courting power but is not respected by Senate policy experts and State Department career folks; he’s good with a zinger but a loose cannon. Reines insists that he encouraged the recent hiring of Victoria Nuland as the department’s new top spokeswoman. His passion, he said, is guarding Clinton’s political image.
“I was promoted in other ways,” he said, adding of his critics among Clinton’s former colleagues: “It’s interesting to me that they don’t exist anymore. They don’t have any job.”
Soon after joining Clinton at the State Department, Reines joined her on her travels abroad. He dreamed up what he called “townterviews” — a hybrid of town hall and talk show — that cast Clinton as the star in front of tough foreign audiences.
At the home office, Reines slowly earned the trust of his subordinates. But he also earned a bad rap among colleagues for condescending to career staff and undercutting his superior and rival, P.J. Crowley, in the State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs.
“We were both dedicated to supporting the secretary and the department,” said Crowley, who resigned in March after publicly criticizing the Pentagon. “We never really achieved a common understanding about how to best accomplish that.”
“Things get pretty fluid,” said Reines about cutting out his boss. “I’m sorry that it was taken as intentional.”
All of this fell under the header of office squabbles until a March 2009 trip to Geneva. Reines had an idea: Clinton could present Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, with a button labeled “Reset” in Russian, to symbolize a new beginning between the two estranged nations. With great fanfare, she presented the diplomatic prop, but Lavrov informed her that the word on the button actually translated to “overcharged.”
At the time, a few anonymous quotes appeared in insider political reports taking swipes at Michael McFaul, then the senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, who approved the flawed translation. (Last month, President Obama named McFaul ambassador to Russia.) Reines’s reputation for stealth warfare worked against him when administration officials and reporters gleefully related the gossip that Reines, in an attempt to fortify his anonymous trashing of McFaul, asked a reporter to source him as “a person at the White House” because he happened to be on White House grounds at the time of their conversation.
Reines fervently rejects the accusation. “It’s creative [expletive],” said Reines. “But it’s [expletive].”
In a classic damage-control move, he now fully owns his gaffe, displaying a framed Time magazine cover story about the incident, signed by Clinton, above his desk.
Reines knows full well that, in the image-building business, a wealth of humanizing details can make a character more sympathetic. Even as he shipped out with Clinton to an Arctic summit in Greenland, he e-mailed his profiler: “Would it be helpful if I sent you random factoids, pieces of color? For instance, I don’t ever drink D.C. tap water.”
He then offered a series of bullet-point notes, including such information as “I take Pilates,” “I walk to work” and “When I wear cuff-linked shirts, I wear a set that look like sink faucets, one’s marked hot one’s marked cold. It’s a self-aware reflection that I can be both.” He also noted that he is embarking on a master’s program at night at the National Defense University and that he is currently reading three books.
Reines also sent along more than a dozen photos of himself. They included shots of him riding a tricycle as a baby, chipping away at the Berlin Wall, riding in an elevator with Sen. John McCain and stepping out for an evening with actress Natalie Portman.
Clearly, Reines flouts the press secretary commandment: Thou shalt not distract from the boss. For his 35th birthday bash in November 2004, Reines decorated the walls of the Dupont Circle house of David Lane, currently a top aide to Obama’s chief of staff, William M. Daley, with photocopied clips of his own quotes. In July 2007, an e-mail in which Reines campaigned to win Fishbowl’s “Hottest Media Types” contest was leaked online.
This audacity has long served him well in Washington. During a high school trip to the District, he quizzed Alan Greenspan about Ayn Rand and engaged Orrin Hatch in a discussion about the senator’s career ambitions.
Years later, Reines plotted his return to the federal city. He waltzed into Al Gore’s 2000 campaign in Nashville as a volunteer and ultimately ingratiated himself with its team of opposition researchers. When Gore lost and took a teaching gig at Columbia University, Reines followed, acting as his teaching assistant and de facto spokesman. A stint working on a contentious New York City mayoral primary led to a communications director gig with then-congresswoman Jane Harman of California.
Washington fulfilled his personal and professional longings. In its small social pond, Reines became a big fish. In a wonk world, Reines’s quick wit marked him as a creative force. In a transient town governed by electoral seasons, Reines became the friend you could count on. Above all, in the arena of ambitious operatives on the make, Reines learned that loyalty was a rare and valued virtue.
He hit the scene, one populated by young professional television producers and bookers, political operatives and government officials. Reines frequented Lauriol Plaza, a restaurant where, in 2010 alone, he said he spent $1,895. He haunted hotel bars. At James Carville’s restaurant West 24, he “just hit it off” with journalist Mike Allen, the future maven of Politico’s Playbook.
Begrudgingly admiring colleagues studied how he wore women down with unabashed persistence. He became a frequent tipster — often about his own exploits — to online gossips. His bravado sometimes backfired, earning him a 2007 mention on the Web site
An ever-tightening circle of friends from the Gore campaign followed Reines around town. The “Men of Zeal,” as this Gore crew was known, included Raj Shah, now the administrator of USAID; Jeremy Bash, now chief of staff to CIA Director Leon Panetta; and Andrew Shapiro, now assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
“I wouldn’t describe us as being particularly reclusive at that stage in our lives,” said Mike Feldman, a top Gore aide in 2000 and prominent consultant.
In September 2004, Reines and Bash loaded backpacks with 50 pounds of weight and spent hours climbing the “ ‘Exorcist’ steps” in Georgetown in preparation for a climb of Mount Rainier. Shah, who climbed the mountain with them, remembered that the guides who “spike,” or sideline, exhausted climbers for their own protection got an earful from Reines, who refused to stop climbing. In the last 500 yards, they broke protocol and allowed him to ascend without his bag.
“If he didn’t make it to the top,” Shah said, “he would just fall apart.”
In February 2002, Reines attended the wedding of his pal Shapiro, who had taken a foreign policy job with Sen. Clinton. The reception was packed with Hillaryland denizens with whom he stayed in touch and, in the case of one legislative aide, dated. His break came when Clinton’s outgoing communications director called around to search for a new press secretary and a USA Today reporter suggested Reines.
Before long, reporters in the New York press corps got to know him all too well. He patronized tabloid reporters, telling them their assignments were beneath them. While home-state rival Sen. Chuck Schumer and his team courted every outlet, Reines told reporters they weren’t ready to speak with Clinton.
Reines soon began to grate on his Clinton colleagues, too. In July 2005, when the Clinton team was in the thick of deciding whether she should run, Clinton’s senior adviser, Patti Solis Doyle, warned the senator’s brain trust that it was no time for distractions. Days later, Reines talked about the pleasure of traveling with Clinton in his own New York Times profile, complete with beaming photo. Clinton’s actual traveling press secretary, Jennifer Hanley, nine months pregnant at the time, was livid, as was Solis Doyle, who raged that Reines had disobeyed direct orders.
“Patti fired me,” Reines recalled, adding with a smirk, “I just sort of ignored it, like George Costanza. I was in the office the next day at 7 a.m.” He said that Clinton had known about the profile before it ran and that she decided to keep him on. “Ultimately, the organization was and is run by one person,” he said. “One person wanted me there.”
Solis Doyle declined to comment on the incident.
In October 2006, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted a Clinton adviser attacking McCain as “looking similar to the way he did on those captive tapes from Hanoi, where he recited the names of his crew mates.” Clinton had to apologize to McCain for the comment, which came from Reines. Her brass again decided Reines had to go, but Clinton kept him in purgatory instead: her Senate office.
The prize destination for Clinton’s Senate staffers was campaign headquarters in Arlington, but Reines wasn’t welcome there. Adding insult to injury, Clinton hired Reines’s rivals in Schumer’s press office. They disparaged him as the “purse holder,” after the New York Times described Reines toting Clinton’s handbag.
Reines was patient. “I knew that the first ones in are not always the last ones out,” he said.
He also kept fighting for Clinton from the Senate office. In May 2007, when a spate of unauthorized biographies came out about Clinton, Reines nearly nullified them in one much-publicized quip: “Is it possible to be quoted yawning?”
“Killing books has always been a fun pastime,” bragged Reines, who considers the quote his “Hall of Fame moment.”
For Reines’s enemies, his real Hall of Fame moment was still to come.
On Sept. 26, 2007, Clinton met her campaign team for a debate preparation session at the Phoenix Park Hotel. In the middle of the session, she excused herself for an appointment on the Hill and then, to the horror of her campaign, voted for a measure to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization — a disastrous move for a candidate looking to shed a hawkish reputation in a Democratic primary. Her campaign’s senior strategist, Mark Penn, fired off an e-mail to Reines, one of the 859,200 Senate and campaign e-mails Reines has saved, expressing frustration that the Senate staff didn’t tell the campaign that the vote was coming. “We didn’t know she was leaving prep to vote,” Reines wrote at the time. “And were surprised when she did.”
Former campaign officials still blame Reines for failing to flag the vote. Reines places the blame elsewhere. “In fairness to her,” Reines said of Clinton, “she did what she always does; she looked to other people to see how they were voting. So she looked at Chuck. Chuck voted for it. She looked at Harry Reid. Harry Reid voted for it. She looked at Carl Levin. Carl Levin voted for it. It was the first time that a vote had become so charged” in the run-up to the 2008 election.
After the fatal Iowa caucuses, Clinton pushed Solis Doyle aside and tasked Reines with watching over Chelsea Clinton on the campaign trail. Reines “could be mistaken for a Secret Service agent for Chelsea Clinton,” according to a Politico profile at the time. In February 2008, a TV anchor said Clinton had “pimped out” her daughter by allowing Chelsea to campaign on her behalf. According to several people on the conference call, Clinton choked up with anger and emotion when her communications director, Howard Wolfson, broke the news. Reines, usually silent on such calls, handed his phone to the candidate’s daughter.
“Mom, Mom. It’s Chelsea. I’m okay,” she broke in, according to several participants.
“I remember thinking,” said Reines, “she would feel a lot better talking to her daughter.”
Reines grew up in Manhattan with his mother, Judith, and grandmother in a rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment. The quarters were tight, but the family wasn’t.
Judith, an insurance broker, never married Reines’s father, Ionnis Papadakis, and her son met him only once, in a childhood encounter he doesn’t remember. Steven Kleiner, a classmate and frequent sleepover guest at the Reines home who’s now a psychiatrist in Massachusetts, described the partnership between mother and son as a “business relationship.” Reines acknowledges that he and his mother are not especially close. In Kleiner’s view, his friend resented his mother for neglecting the issue of his father’s absence and compounding the burden by enrolling her son in a Jewish private school with “family values of the 1950s.”
As teenagers, the two attended Ramaz, a tony Jewish academy on the Upper East Side where future spinmeister Steven Rubenstein and other children of powerful and wealthy New Yorkers populated the student body. Kleiner said they both were out of place among the elite overachievers. Reines, Kleiner said, was especially “lost.”
Reines, a lackluster student prone to day-dreaming, had a real passion for building friendships.
He lent Kleiner money from his savings account to buy an expensive tennis racket and then urged him on at tennis team practices. After graduation, the two attended the University at Albany. He left after one semester and soon followed other friends to Clark University in Massachusetts but never enrolled.
“Some people are addicted to being in a giving relationship,” Kleiner said. “He needs to always be giving or he gets lost. He needs an object to whom he can be helpful.”
For Reines’s friends, the ultimate example of his emphasis on loyalty came in 1994 when he tried to rescue a roommate who fell victim to what Reines thought was a con. The friend had invested in “EZ Score,” a startup company built around a basketball hoop that always sent the ball bouncing back to the shooter, and had given his new Lincoln to the company’s president. Reines objected. He located his friend’s car and a tow truck driver, who, for a price, was willing to repossess it. Reines recalled with pride that after reclaiming the car he sent his friend to Puerto Rico to lay low. Ultimately, he acknowledged, “the friendship fell apart.”
In 1998, at 29, with most of his friends having moved on in life, Reines enrolled in a program at Columbia University designed for students who belatedly discover their academic ambitions. On the day of his graduation in 2000, he flew to Nashville to volunteer for Gore. In 2009, he returned to his school as commencement speaker. Hours earlier Clinton had addressed the university’s Barnard College graduates from the same podium.
“As she was leaving campus,” Reines said facetiously of Clinton in his address, “she noticed that I wasn’t leaving with her, and she looked at me and asked, ‘Aren’t you coming?’ And I told her, ‘Nah, I’m going to stay and see my mother.’ ”
He then briefly saluted his mother in the audience before continuing to talk at length about Clinton and how she “might have suggested I practice in front of her” if he’d told her he was sticking around to give a speech.
“So,” Reines concluded, “if anyone happens to bump into the secretary of state between now and whenever, please remember, I was not here.”