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Clinton Taps Podesta for Chief of Staff

Politics: New boss at White House is described as a tough, workaholic, liberal, straight-shooting warrior. He succeeds Erskine Bowles.

October 21, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — That John David Podesta has an appropriate fondness for roller coasters did not go without notice in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.

"That will certainly serve him well here," said President Clinton, leaving unsaid the obvious: That as his new--and fourth--chief of staff, Podesta is taking over a White House staff that in its six years has climbed the heights to triumph but also knows too well the terrifying descents.

Podesta, 49, will replace Erskine Bowles. The popular, effective and somewhat patrician staff chief has wanted to rejoin his family in North Carolina and contemplate a run for governor there--nearly every day of a two-year tenure that he portrayed all along as a short-term assignment.

In turning to Podesta, one of Bowles' two deputies, Clinton chose a man for whom Washington insiders on Tuesday found no shortage of descriptives: a real warrior. Tough. A workaholic. A real politician. And, even, a real liberal.

Then there's what he's not: a theoretical chin-scratcher. There's what he does: shoot straight. And what he doesn't do: spare feelings.

From Blue Blood to Blue Collar

"An unlikely pair," Podesta said of himself and Bowles, with his predecessor to his left and the president to his right. "Bowles from North Carolina, Podesta from Chicago. Bowles, blue blood; Podesta, blue collar. No one ever got confused about which one of us had a passion for golf and which one of us had a passion for amusement parks."

At a time when veterans of Clinton's early White House years are leaving, Podesta's ascent gives Clinton a chief of staff who brings more practical, broad-based Washington experience to the spacious office in the southwest corner of the White House West Wing barely 20 paces from the Oval Office than perhaps anyone in more than two decades. Others have brought more gravitas to the office because of their seniority--former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., for one, in the Ronald Reagan White House--but none has had Podesta's variety of service.

He served as Clinton's staff secretary at the outset of the administration, taking on such onerous chores as monitoring the Whitewater investigation and looking into such sticky early-term missteps as the firing of the White House travel office staff and the mishandling of FBI files on Bush administration personnel.

He then taught a course on, among other things, government scandals, in 1995 and 1996 at the Georgetown University Law Center, from which he had graduated. And one month after Clinton's reelection, Podesta returned to the White House as deputy chief of staff.

As a member of the White House senior staff, Podesta was among those to whom Clinton gave a direct denial in January of an adulterous affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. The president later apologized to his aides.

Now, a key part of Podesta's mission is to restore Clinton's damaged presidency.

Clinton unveiled his new chief of staff Tuesday in the White House Rose Garden, adding an element of ceremony--replete with Marine Band and some 200 applauding staff members--to an announcement that might have been made more conventionally by a short presidential visit to the White House press room.

"He is brilliant, he has a tough hide, a dry wit, a lot of patience in dealing with the president, hard-won wisdom, and a genuine compassion for improving this nation." That description was offered by the president himself.

His grandparents, Podesta said, struggled to reach the United States at the turn of the century and then struggled to survive here. His father, a factory worker, finished only one year of high school.

"I know what it really means to work for the minimum wage and to count your raises in cents and not dollars," he said.

History Dates Back to McGovern

Podesta has long been a part of Democratic Party causes, reaching back to George S. McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. His brother, Tony Podesta, is a Democratic political consultant in Washington.

For more than a decade beginning in 1977, Podesta worked in the Senate, first as counsel to the Judiciary Committee and then as counsel to the Agriculture Committee.

"John is the one guy down there who actually passed legislation," said a Senate colleague. "John knows how to close a deal. He brings a sense of how to get things done but he really understands policy."

That, say Podesta's admirers, is what Clinton needs now, with the end of his term in sight and unmet goals--among them protection of the Social Security System.

"If you look at the next two years as a time when the president's goal is to put points on the board, John will do as well as anybody. He'll just scrap it out. If you're a reasonable person and have the president's authority behind you, you can negotiate with anybody--and he'll deal smart," said one Clinton advisor with many years of experience dealing with Congress.

Besides all that, said Clinton, whose late-night card games keep travelers awake on Air Force One, Podesta brings one other talent to the job:

"He is a better hearts player than Erskine Bowles."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: John Podesta

Here is background on President Clinton's next chief of staff:

* Age: 49

* Education: bachelor's degree in law from Georgetown, 1976

* Career: former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee; White House staff secretary and senior policy advisor under Clinton; deputy chief of staff for last two years

* Personal: married, father of three; native of Chicago's northwest side; has known Clinton since 1970

\o7 Source: Times wire services\f7

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