WASHINGTON — The White House during President Clinton's second term was a combustible, ambitious place. While to the public it appeared that the chief executive was spending most of his time embroiled in scandal, a small group of staffers worked behind the scenes to pursue an aggressive policy agenda.
Elena Kagan was one of them. She had come to the Clinton domestic policy shop in 1997 after serving as an administration lawyer. By the time she left two years later, she had put her stamp on the office, a unit that took on tobacco and gun industries, advocated campaign finance reform, backed affirmative action and worked to preserve abortion rights.
Because Kagan, President Obama's pick to be the next justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, has never been a judge or even a prolific academic writer, much has been made about her lack of a paper record. But Kagan has left behind a different sort of trail -- a personal one, cut by the relationships she forged, and a bureaucratic one, memos circulated between herself and other White House principals.
In the Clinton years, according to memos and those who worked in the office, Kagan was part of a nerve center that included domestic policy advisor Bruce Reed, then-Chief of Staff John Podesta and current Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. And she had a direct line to the president.
"Clinton viewed her as an independent source of advice and wisdom in grappling with those difficult policy questions," Podesta said.
Kagan was a player, the consummate insider working within a nexus of law, politics and policy, comfortable in all three areas. In the White House, she learned skills she would later put to use at Harvard Law School as dean, bridging the gulf between liberals and conservatives and expanding the school's political influence. She may use those skills again on the court if she is confirmed.
"To the extent that you are looking for someone to get to five votes, she's someone who works hard to listen to other people," Podesta said. "It's characteristic of the way she operated to build policy consensus."
Since her Ivy League days as an undergrad at Princeton and a law student at Harvard, Kagan, 50, has traversed the corridors of power. But she grew up modestly, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, one of three children of an elementary school teacher mother and a lawyer father who represented mostly tenants.
Both her parents are deceased, and Kagan said Monday that her biggest regret was that they could not share in the historic occasion. Both her brothers teach high school in New York, one at the same public high school she attended.
At Princeton in the late 1970s, while working on the school newspaper, she met Reed, who would become a lifelong friend and would hire her 30 years later. Her success at Harvard Law would define the course of her life. She first clerked for Abner Mikva, a judge on U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and then for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the trailblazing African American and civil rights icon.
Her start in politics came in 1988, when she volunteered to work on Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign.
A self-described flunky, she worked in the research department, defending Dukakis from political attacks and conducting research on the opposition. From there, she took a job in private practice in Washington, at the litigation firm of Williams & Connolly, before taking a teaching position at the University of Chicago, where Obama also taught.
Mikva gave Kagan a job in the White House in 1995 as an associate counsel to the president. "She is very thoughtful, a great intellect," he said Monday.
But she had already learned some of the ropes in Washington, having served briefly as a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee in the early 1990s. She worked for Sen. Joe Biden, now the vice president, and with Ron Klain, then a White House lawyer and Biden's current chief of staff. Klain played an instrumental role in the nomination process that yielded Kagan.
During her stint with Mikva in the White House, Kagan worked on the legality of the sweeping welfare reform package Clinton pushed through Congress.
According to records at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., she also drafted an executive order restricting the importation of certain semiautomatic assault rifles. She also helped prepare a question-and-answer document advocating the campaign-reform legislation then proposed by Sens. Russ Feingold and John McCain.
At the end of Clinton's first term, she planned to return to the University of Chicago Law School to resume teaching when Reed persuaded her to stay in the White House as his domestic policy lieutenant, his right hand.
Reed said Kagan wasn't a political hire. "We had plenty of those," he said. "I wanted a brilliant lawyer who could run circles around everyone else."
Reed and Kagan operated as equals, running policy decisions in the office and up to the Oval Office.