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The Democrats' Party Pleaser : Years of Raising Dollars and Spirits for Party in Exile Earn Pamela Harriman Nomination for Envoy Job

April 05, 1993|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Democrats think of her as their political godmother, their queen mother, their mother superior.

Journalists, entranced by her regal manner, regularly describe Pamela Harriman as an empress or a duchess.

Even denizens of stuffy Georgetown, once wary of the striking redhead they dubbed the "Widow of Opportunity," have come to acknowledge her as the doyenne among dowagers.

And now, to this formidable list of honorifics, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, 73, is adding an official title.

Ambassador.

Her nomination to serve as America's top envoy to France comes as one of President Clinton's least surprising appointments. Almost from the moment Clinton was elected, Washington has assumed that the widow of W. Averell Harriman was in line for a top diplomatic post.

Harriman's wealth and worldliness make her a kind of royal figure among Democrats, who shed their populist pretexts when an invitation comes from her N Street mansion. Bill and Hillary Clinton traveled to Harriman's Georgetown home for their first formal dinner party after arriving in Washington.

"Anyone who has been involved with the Democratic Party for any length of time is certainly familiar with Mrs. Harriman's talent for diplomacy," Clinton said when he nominated her.

Pending her confirmation hearings, Harriman declined to be interviewed. In the two months between Clinton's inauguration and her nomination, she had a stock response: "I certainly don't want to leave Washington," she kept saying when the question of an ambassadorship was posed. "I mean, I haven't waited to get a President elected for 12 years to then leave Washington."

But her undisputed role as chief cheerleader in the un-Democratic '80s made her a force to be recognized--and better yet, rewarded.

"Those were the dark, dark days," Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said, as he looked back on the Reagan and Bush administrations. But "Pamela just had this commitment."

Harriman's dedication was not only contagious--it also translated into big money for a party in a state of financial despair. Democrats for the '80s, the political action committee she founded just weeks after Reagan was elected in 1980, was swiftly renamed PAMPAC.

Starting on her birthday in 1981, she held monthly "issues evenings" for 30 or 40 carefully selected guests. Policy experts, such as Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) or New York investment banker Felix Rohatyn, would talk about defense strategy or the economy, and then someone of the status of Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, would pass the hat.

"Her home really became the gathering place for the party in exile," lobbyist Tony Podesta said.

PAMPAC sponsored other, more glittering occasions as well. One legendary fete champetre at Harriman's Virginia hunt country estate in 1991 brought in $3.2 million in a single day. That rather remarkable outpouring also earned a snipe from then-President Bush.

"Pamela Harriman's farm," Bush scorned. "The bastion of democracy."

PAMPAC distributed more than $12 million to Democratic gubernatorial, congressional and presidential candidates throughout the 1980s. It also paid for improved broadcasting, satellite equipment and other technological innovations for the party. And there were PAMPAC-published candidates' handbooks, offering what Foley called "the best Democratic thinking on a number of key issues."

PAMPAC fast became an important Democratic calling card. One of its founding board members, in fact, turns out to have been a defeated one-term Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.

Clinton was not Harriman's first choice for the Democratic presidential nomination; that honor went to Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. But she grew to admire Clinton--in particular, his stamina.

It was almost as if some of her own philosophy had rubbed off on the 42nd President of the United States.

"You never give up," Harriman has said. "There may be deep periods of frustration and disappointment. But don't feel downhearted."

Those comments were made in reference to the determination she learned from Winston Churchill, her former father-in-law. The British prime minister, for whom young Pamela acted as a surrogate hostess when his wife was ailing, was only one of a litany of famous, powerful men whose lives have intersected with hers.

She was born in 1920 on a British dairy farm and at 19--plump, but with the peach-soft skin that still dazzles men and women alike--she married Winston Churchill's son Randolph. Though it produced a son, Winston, the brief wartime alliance was doomed when Randolph turned out to have a weakness for gambling.

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