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John Podesta: Clinton's Mr. Fix-It

Today in Style
White House aide
John Podesta.
(Reuters file)

From the Starr Report:
PODESTA: [H]e said to me that he had never had sex with her, and that -- and that he never asked -- you know, he repeated the denial, but he was extremely explicit in saying he never had sex with her.
Q: How do you mean?
PODESTA: Just what I said.
Q: Okay. Not explicit, in the sense that he got more specific than sex, than the word "sex."
PODESTA: Yes, he was more specific than that.
Q: Okay. Share that with us.
PODESTA:Well, I think he said -- he said that -- there was some spate of, you know, what sex acts were counted, and he said that he had never had sex with her in any way whatsoever --  Read more.

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Full Coverage: Including More Post Stories

White House Gets Outsiders' Advice (Washington Post, Sept. 26)

Defenders Optimistic as Battle Moves to Political Realm (Washington Post, Sept. 25)

Clinton Allies Seek Compromise on Hill (Washington Post, Sept. 23)

White House Strategy Evolving Day by Day (Washington Post, Sept. 17)

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 1998; Page D01

It's a good thing John Podesta has a sense of humor.

He's under inhuman stress these days as the White House official in charge of saving President Clinton from himself. It's a job that amounts to cleaning up after a rogue elephant.

As deputy chief of staff, the 49-year-old Podesta is leading the frantic struggle to protect and defend a man who has disgraced himself, imperiled his presidency, damaged the Democratic Party and betrayed family, friends and associates -- John Podesta conspicuous among them.

Podesta's humor, appropriately, is dark and mordant. Recently he and the president were hashing over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the impeachment inquiry it has sparked, with Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Bowles is a Clinton golfing buddy who, despite the president's pleas, is determined to leave the White House soon and return to private business in North Carolina.

"So it looks like you might get your wish," Podesta told Clinton, according to a knowledgeable source.

"What's that?"

"Erskine's gonna be your last chief of staff, after all."

It's safe to say that Podesta, who has been widely touted as Bowles's successor, found the quip funnier than Clinton did.

He's a thin, moody, wraithlike man who, before joining the White House, had a long history in Democratic politics. He has been, at various times, an anti-war activist, a political operative (he first clapped eyes on Bill Clinton in Connecticut where both worked in Joseph Duffy's unsuccessful 1970 Senate race), an opposition research director for 1988 presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, a Washington political consultant in business with his older brother, Tony, and a top staffer in Congress, where he still maintains his connections -- especially useful now -- to both Democrats and Republicans.

Equally relevant, he's an expert in the procedures of congressional investigations and has taught a class on this timely subject at the Georgetown University Law Center for the past two summers.

Despite a cheekiness that borders on hostility and a sometimes snappish mien that colleagues identify as "John's evil twin, Skippy," Podesta says he's forgiven the president for lying to him (and to everyone else) about his escapades with the former White House intern.

Which is to say: Podesta has forgiven Clinton for entangling him in the effort to find Clinton's former lover a good job outside the White House -- for which Podesta arranged a job interview with then-United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson. And he's forgiven Clinton for letting him repeat various falsehoods about Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, under oath, to a federal grand jury. Both episodes figure prominently as possible grounds for impeachment in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report to Congress.

"He did lie to me," Podesta recently acknowledged to National Public Radio. "I think he was embarrassed by the situation he was in. I think he was trying to keep it a secret. . . . It was wrongful. And I think he's admitted that."

And did Podesta, his trust violated, ever think of quitting?

Not really. The president "is a decent man. . . . He has done so much for this country. I think he has a lot more to give," he told NBC News. "As I reflected upon this, I thought the right thing to do was to stay here and defend this presidency and defend this president."

According to a White House aide who was present at a meeting of the House Democratic leadership, Podesta argued to the members: "I know why you feel like he hasn't been straight with you, because he hasn't been straight with me. . . . But there's something much larger going on here. If you look at the totality of this, he's done something wrong, but it doesn't warrant removal from office."

Thus Podesta once again is toiling to contain a Clinton scandal -- a task he has shouldered since the first term, when he struggled with the fallout from the White House travel office firings, Hillary Rodham Clinton's commodity trading profits and, of course, Whitewater. But all those pale beside this Mother of All Scandals.

Podesta prefers to deal with substantive matters such as encryption technology, the declassification of government documents, agricultural policy, the impact of the Internet. But he always seems to slip back into the tar pit of scandal mangement.

"Because he is good at it," says zealous Clintonite James Carville. "I used to work offshore on a dredge boat, and the first thing someone told me was never learn how to splice cable, because it's a necessary but difficult job, and once everyone figures out you can do it, that's all you'll be doing." At the White House, "John can't get out of it," Carville says, " 'cause there's a lot of cable backing up over there."

Back in 1993 when he was staff secretary at White House, ostensibly regulating paper flow to the president, Podesta became so mired in scandal duties that he gave himself the scatological title "Secretary of [expletive]."

It was an apt description, especially when he was handed the messy job of investigating and writing a report on the travel office episode -- a public document that revealed to the world Hillary Clinton's role in the bungled affair. (She closely monitored the decisions that led to the controversial firing of seven employees.)

The first lady, according to several White House insiders, was not amused at being thus exposed, and blamed Podesta for her embarrassment. By most accounts, she made him pay: When then-Chief of Staff Mack McLarty wanted to make Podesta his deputy, Mrs. Clinton vetoed the appointment, insiders say. "She doesn't remember it that way," says the first lady's press secretary, Marsha Berry, declining to elaborate.

Whatever the case, Clinton clearly warmed up to Podesta after he successfully defended her in 1994 on such issues as Whitewater and her commodity futures investments. She was sorry to see him go when he left the White House in 1995 to become a visiting law professor at Georgetown and counsel to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and she was glad when Bowles lured him back to work in her husband's second term.

"I have great admiration and affection for John," Mrs. Clinton says today. "I always feel that anything he's asked to do is in very good hands, and I'm especially pleased he's playing a major role in the White House at this time."

The Quiet Man

According to Clinton insiders, Podesta not only supervises the workaday White House (because Bowles manages like a corporate CEO, setting goals that others implement), but he also leads regular forays on Capitol Hill to calm the nerves of skittish Democrats, synthesizes the political and communications strategies in the campaign to forestall impeachment proceedings, spins a select group of key journalists and regularly advises the president. He shares that last chore with new arrival Greg Craig, a former Williams & Connolly partner and a Yale Law School classmate of the first lady's who left a top job at the State Department to work full time on the Lewinsky matter.

Podesta has taken over the White House damage control effort after months of friction between the president's legal team, led by Clinton attorney David Kendall and White House counsel Charles Ruff, and the president's political advisers. The conflict came to a head with Clinton's much-criticized Aug. 17 televised address in which he claimed that it was possible to be at once "misleading" and "legally accurate" about an extramarital affair.

Podesta, an advocate for public disclosure in his previous scandal work, had argued internally for plain speaking instead of lawyerly defensiveness -- a view loudly seconded on Capitol Hill. As he recently told CNN: "I am a lawyer, but I don't play one on TV."

But he operates most comfortably behind the scenes and off-camera. Indeed, he's such a consummate staff man, insiders say, that during the first term, he failed to impress Clinton and then-Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as a major player in the policy realm. The self-effacing Podesta was considered lacking in stature -- a source of continual frustration to him. That he has emerged today as an important public presence comes as a surprise to many.

"John was ever the low-profile type," says former Republican senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, who knew and liked Podesta when he was the Democrats' chief counsel on the Judiciary Committee in the early 1980s. "To see him on the tube is a cultural shock of sorts for me."

But if Podesta were ever to become a Washington celebrity, this married father of three would probably be acclaimed for his formidable talents as a chef, his compulsive attention to detail and his fanatical devotion to "The X-Files" -- especially FBI agent Fox Mulder, with whom he shares a penchant for obsessiveness and paranoia. As White House press secretary Mike McCurry puts it, "John can get totally maniacal and phobic on certain subjects. He's been known to pick up the phone to call the Air Force and ask them what's going on in Area 51."

But Podesta seems to have no interest in being famous, and grudgingly provided only two statements for this article:

1. "I'm into the cult of non-personality."

2. "In the last couple of weeks, the quantity and quality of my hate mail have increased substantially."

Both Sides Now

Podesta doesn't shrink from partisan combat. He recently lacerated the House GOP for releasing the president's grand jury testimony: "They decided that rather than just doing a document dump, they would do a garbage dump."

Yet Republicans who know Podesta say they trust and respect him -- a judgment they'd grant few others in the Clinton White House.

"John's an excellent fellow," says Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who talks to Podesta regularly and would play a crucial role in any impeachment trial. "He did a great job when he worked on the Judiciary Committee" -- as chief counsel for Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) -- "and he does a great job at the White House. He's honorable, he's a good adviser, he's very bright, and he has that rare ability to be wise."

"My feeling is that John has a good moral point of view -- and he certainly has a tough job to do," says Rep. Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), the chief deputy Republican whip and an old college pal of Podesta's brother Tony (the Podestas grew up in Chicago). "He's tried to do it with as much dignity and honesty as he could possibly bring forward."

Two weeks ago, when Salon magazine exposed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde's ancient extramarital affair, Podesta promised the Illinois Republican that he'd fire any White House staffer who might have played a role in the story. "I will personally kick their ass out the door," Podesta vowed in a phone call.

"I think that's credible," says House Judiciary Committee Chief of Staff Tom Mooney. "And the chairman had no doubt that John would do it."

Mooney -- who got to know Podesta 15 years ago, when they were hammering out House-Senate Judiciary Committee conference reports together -- is another important Republican with whom Podesta will work as impeachment hearings loom. As for the question of which aide is feeling more strain these days -- the chairman's or the president's? -- Mooney is quick to answer.

"I think John is, probably," he says. "We have a process. . . . John has somehow got to break into that process. If he's not trying to explode the process or disrupt the process, he has to make sure he's at least a part of that process." Mooney adds: "He's not in the ballgame yet."

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and his Senate counterpart Daschle -- who've been occasional critics of the president's handling of the affair -- have nothing but praise for Podesta.

"He's optimistic, he's always can-do, and he has a knack for understanding politics and politicians, and for understanding the members and how issues work in Congress," Gephardt says. "In this situation, you can get rattled. He doesn't do that, and that's very reassuring."

"I've never seen John lose it," says Daschle, to whom Podesta is especially close. "He's had the ability to stay very focused as they've gone through these very difficult weeks. He's also able to take disparate people and groups and find common threads and common ideas."

Podesta found just such a common thread when Daschle alerted him three Sundays ago that he and Gephardt were about to issue stern condemnations of the White House's "legal hairsplitting."

Their coordinated communiques -- a reaction to the much-criticized Sunday panel show performances of lawyers Kendall and Ruff -- finally got the president's attention and handed Podesta a small victory in his long-running argument with the legal team over the president's message.

"I made the decision to put this stuff in the lawyers' office before the independent counsel's report . . . because I thought it was the right place for it," says Bowles, who expects to leave the White House after next month's congressional adjournment. "Now it has moved to a different arena, and you want someone who has practical, real-world, problem-solving ability, who knows politics and knows Congress, and knows what kind of message to get out. John has the ability to do that. . . . I think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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