Journal Star

April 8, 2001


Podesta mastered scandal management
   Clinton's chief of staff maintains Illinois connections

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - When John Podesta walked out of the White House on Jan. 20, he felt a sense of relief. He was leaving his fast-paced, stressful post as White House chief of staff to join the academic world.

However, the transition wasn't as speedy as he hoped.

He was summoned to Capitol Hill in March to testify about former President Bill Clinton's last-minute pardons before leaving office.

''A veteran of scandal management,'' as he's oft described in the press, the Chicago native who graduated from Knox College in Galesburg has appeared more times than he can remember before grand juries and congressional panels.

Podesta, 52, should have no shortage of anecdotes for his law school class on congressional investigations.

''Fortunately for my students' sake and unfortunately for my sake, we kept freshening up the material,'' he joked during a recent interview in his new office at Georgetown University Law Center, where he is still unpacking.

In 1993, as White House staff secretary, Podesta led the White House internal review of the controversial firings at the White House travel office. Then, there was Whitewater. He left the White House temporarily from 1995 to 1996, missing the ''Filegate'' fiasco. But he returned in time to be swept up in the campaign fund-raising investigations. And, of course, that whole Monica Lewinsky thing.

Podesta became Clinton's fourth and last chief of staff in November 1998, just before the impeachment proceedings in Congress.

In the tense months after that, Podesta drew on his longtime personal relationships with other Illinois natives to rebuild a working relationship between the White House and Congress.

It helped that Podesta had longtime ties to Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, who unexpectedly was elected House speaker in January 1999.

Podesta's brother, Tony, a Washington lobbyist, has known Hastert since 1965, when they traveled together to Japan as part of group of college leaders.

Podesta's Knox College roommate, Greg Busch, who is still one of his best friends, worked for Hastert when Hastert was a state legislator in Springfield.

''The speaker always knew he could be very frank with John Podesta,'' said John Feehery, Hastert's press secretary. ''Keep in mind there was a lot of distrust on both sides. Denny was fairly untested. Clinton was disgraced. But you had to get the country running, and you needed some personal relationships to overcome the challenges. There was that bond of friendship between the two that helped.''

Podesta helped arrange a lunch meeting between Clinton and Hastert that aided their ability to work together during a period when partisan emotions ran high.

Hastert's longtime adviser, Dan Mattoon, whom the speaker put in charge of ensuring that Republicans retained their majority in the House, recently joined Tony Podesta's lobbying shop.

Unlike some other chiefs of staff, Podesta had no long, personal relationship with Clinton. He came up through the ranks as a White House and congressional staffer. He admits he was personally disappointed by Clinton's actions.

''While it was difficult, I thought the work we were doing and the work I could help the rest of the staff to do was important and that the country would be better off if we stayed there and fought this thing out,'' Podesta said.

While the scandals were a distraction, Podesta said, ''I viewed it to be my job to keep that contained to the people who had to deal with it . . . to keep the bulk of the staff focused on what we were trying to achieve.''

Podesta took up running to deal with the stress. He plans to compete in a marathon in San Diego in June.

He also carved out time to spend with his wife, Mary, and their three children. The youngest, a high school senior, has applied to Knox College, where his father's interest in politics was born.

Inspired by the issues of the day - the Vietnam War protests and civil rights movement - Podesta took incompletes in his courses his freshman year to travel as a volunteer with Sen. Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign staff.

He graduated from Knox in 1971, obtained a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1976, and launched his government career as a lawyer in the Justice Department.

Podesta will join the Knox College Board of Trustees in June.

Through the roughest times at the White House, Podesta said he was buoyed by the knowledge that policies he helped shape made a difference in people's lives.

He recently was honored by the National Hemophilia Foundation for his work in getting federal funding for those who contracted the HIV virus from blood transfusions.

''I worked really hard on that, and a bunch of people whom I never knew knew I was working on that,'' he said. ''It means so much more than the rest of it.''