Clinton's New Gatekeeper Veteran of Scandal Wars

John Podesta takes reins of White House this week as Clinton's chief of staff.

Some White House staffers decorate coffee tables with presidential trinkets. Not John Podesta. When serving as deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, he covered a table in his office with "X-Files" paraphernalia.

Books, fan magazines, and photos of special agents Mulder and Scully formed the little shrine he built to the popular science fiction TV series.

"Where else but the White House would someone grab onto 'The X-Files' in a desperate attempt to cling to reality?" Mr. Podesta cracked to a crowd of Knox College graduates at his alma mater in Galesburg, Ill., last June.

Indeed, Podesta steps into the job as White House chief of staff at a moment in the American presidency that is almost surreal. This extraordinary political circumstance - a president with towering approval ratings facing impeachment over a sex scandal - is precisely what makes his job arguably tougher than that of his three predecessors.

Even without the prospect of impeachment, the chief of staff position is challenging. Inside the White House, his role is that of master orchestrator of staff and policy. Outside, he must manage relations between the White House and the rest of the world, especially Congress.

Presidential gatekeeper

The special task for this presidential gatekeeper, according to analysts, is to guide Mr. Clinton past the impeachment shoals and help him shape a legacy during the final two years of his term.

While Podesta is calm in crisis, this man with a trademark gallows humor is also described as a workaholic. Despite being a family man with three children, he usually takes only Sundays off.

"As we say around here every Friday, only two more working days till Monday!" Podesta quipped when Clinton announced that the deputy would replace outgoing Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles starting this week.

At the announcement, Podesta described himself as "blue-collar," the son of a Chicago factory worker. He characterized his predecessor as a "blue blood," a self-made millionaire who worked at the White House for $1 a year. Podesta is wild about roller coasters; Bowles is a golfer, like the president.

But the message behind the Podesta promotion is continuity, not change. As Clinton said, his new chief of staff "knows how the White House works."

He also has broad knowledge of how Washington works.

Podesta got his start here as a trial lawyer at the Justice Department, then worked for nine years on the Hill - first as counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and then as chief counsel for the Senate Agriculture Committee. Afterward, he started a political-consulting business with his brother, which he quit in 1993 when he first went to work for the Clinton administration.

Podesta was originally hired as White House staff secretary. During this time, he also built a reputation as the administration's scandal man, heading an in-house investigation of the Travel Office firings, looking into the mishandling of FBI files, and monitoring the Whitewater probe.

He quit 2-1/2 years later, but when Bowles reeled him back in as deputy chief of staff in 1997, Podesta again handled the scandal portfolio - this time as the political point person on the Monica Lewinsky matter.

(Before independent counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury, Podesta testified he tried to help Ms. Lewinsky find a job at the United Nations, at the request of Betty Currie, Clinton's secretary.)

Podesta's experience with beating back scandal, as well as his history with the Judiciary Committee, makes him "uniquely qualified" to be chief of staff at a time when the president faces an impeachment inquiry, says White House communications director Ann Lewis.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential scholar and a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., says Podesta's strength is his ability to shape and plan Clinton's message. As deputy chief of staff, Podesta headed daily meetings for exactly that purpose.

"He's very involved in the message, and I would expect him to continue that - especially because it's going to be so central to the interpretation of the president's legacy," says Ms. Kumar. She also describes Podesta as "strong on substance," especially on foreign and technology policy, and he understands how all the pieces fit together in politics. "He's really the right guy for the job," she says.

Can he work with the Republicans?

But there are skeptics. Although Podesta appears to have a healthy respect from Republicans - Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah calls him "honorable," "an excellent fellow," and a "good adviser" - he is still largely untested in dealing with the leadership in Congress, says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation here.

Unlike Bowles, a centrist Democrat who even House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas could talk to, Podesta is a liberal "who's more partisan," says Mr. Wittmann. If the president wants to pursue any significant domestic agenda, such as Social Security reform, Podesta "will have to gain the credibility of the other side of the aisle," he says.

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