Sunday, November 06, 2016

Paying Full Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Time |  In many ways this is the job Podesta has dreamed about for 20 years, though his first interaction with Hillary Clinton in her husband’s White House didn’t suggest it would ever happen. When Podesta was staff secretary, the then White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty gave Podesta an extra job: handling the scandals of Bill Clinton’s first term. “You needed to isolate those as much as you can and keep the staff focused on the president and his agenda,” McLarty said. “I asked John to spear head that. He was superb.”

As part of that job, Podesta headed up the internal investigation on Travelgate, a scandal started when Hillary Clinton in May 1993 helped direct the firing of seven people from the travel office—usually non-political staff who continue through changes of Administrations. Ultimately, several investigations found the firings were inappropriate and most of the staff was reinstated. Podesta’s report was surprisingly critical of the First Lady’s role. Though no charges ever came of the scandal, the affair left Podesta in her doghouse. But the two policy wonks weren’t estranged for long. “When he left the White House he said to me he’d only go back for one job: Hillary’s chief of staff,” John’s brother Tony Podesta recalls. John Podesta declined to comment on the record for this story.

Podesta did eventually go back for other jobs, becoming Bill’s chief of staff in the final years—weathering Monica Lewinsky and impeachment with his friendships with both Clintons still in tact, that in itself a marvel. Though Podesta wouldn’t directly work for the Clintons again for years, he remained a key player in their orbit, publicly encouraging her to run for the Senate; helping raise money with his brother, with whom he co-founded Washington’s fourth largest lobbying firm, the Podesta Group; and then with the blessings and support of both Clintons launching his think tank, the Center for American Progress in 2003.