It’s 9:05 on a hazy, hot and humid June morning, and Ron Klain is late for his morning staff meeting. The 32-year-old counselor to the attorney general sweeps into his cramped office, strands of hair clinging moistly to his forehead. “Oy,” he says. He grabs a Diet Coke, two legal pads and an armful of fat briefing books, each bearing a handsome Justice Department seal, and is on his way out the door when the phone rings. “Hello. Yeah ... well, just know that I’ll suffer the pain if it gets fucked up—ok, ok I’ll see you later. Take care.” And Klain barrels down the hallway to room 1145, where a staff of middle-aged special assistants and factotums is huddled in soulful conversation. The men have shrugged off their jackets and are standing in their shirtsleeves. The women look glamorous and purposeful in their jewel-toned silk shells.
“All right,” barks Klain. “Let me quickly run through this stuff. June 12. She’s going to be in Pittsburgh for a Wofford event. A bunch of sheriff stuff. June 13. Some events with the Black Caucus. Midnight basketball. An Anacostia town meeting. A bunch of feeds on the yes program.” Someone informs Klain that yes—the Youth Employment Skills program—has just metamorphosed into the Youth Employment Program. Klain is skeptical. “The president is going to say, ‘Let’s give our youth something to say “yep” to’?” He makes a note to himself.
Klain, once an associate in the White House counsel’s office, is now counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno, responsible for coordinating the administration’s position on the crime bill as it wends its way through Congress. He is also an image-maker, charged with creating a daily dose of reportable happenings for the attorney general. This is not always an easy task. Yesterday, for instance, the crime bill began its journey through the Senate-House conference committee. But the conference story is, in Klain’s words, “nonvisual.” In order to remedy this deficiency, Klain has shoehorned into Reno’s schedule a bit of precooked news—a joint press conference with Mario Cuomo, focusing on the impact of the crime bill on New York state. But now, it seems, there’s been a setback. “Cuomo just called,” a staffer tells Klain. “He says he has to deal with the Long Island Rail strike. He’s totally bagging the event.”
Klain rolls a sheaf of papers in his fist. “Oy,” he says. “What else do we have?” The Reno aides exchange anxious glances. “D.C. drug court?” someone ventures. Annoyance clouds Klain’s face. “She’s done D.C. drug court so many goddamn times,” he says. “D.C. drug court is a boring event. You know what D.C. drug court looks like? It looks like this room!” “We could put up a sign that says: drug court,” suggests one staffer. “We could have her do the room where the urine is tested,” offers another. Klain’s sheaf of rolled-up paper beats a rapid tattoo upon the tabletop. “What,” he finally asks, “are we doing with [DEA Director] Tom Constantine?” “Dragging his butt all the way up to Albany,” someone says. “Boom,” says Klain, pleased. “We’ve got it. A press conference. State police, Constantine and her. Effect of the crime bill on New York state.”
And with that, Klain resumes his rundown of the scenes of the week. On the thirteenth, a satellite feed with New Mexico Representative Bill Richardson in Albuquerque. On the fourteenth, sadly, no crime events. On the fifteenth, a black church in East St. Louis. On the sixteenth, “we should get some rural targets for her,” says Klain. “She can do media stuff with rural guys. This is Sheriff Bob and Attorney General Reno on the crime bill—that kind of thing.”
There is, of course, something funny in this elaborate effort to script the purportedly unscriptable attorney general. But in the eyes of White House aides keen to push a strong anti-crime position, Reno’s newly honed message is no joke. Klain’s arrival has been a “watershed,” says one White House official. “She’s stopped being the secretary of health and human services and started being the attorney general.” Congressional Democrats are elated. “Before [Klain] came over, you couldn’t get the administration to move on any of those issues,” says one House Democrat. “Justice and the White House weren’t talking and didn’t trust each other. Everyone would ‘yes’ you. Nothing would happen. With Ron I don’t have to have a five-minute conversation before I get an answer.” As the bill journeys through conference, the stakes are high. Passage of a crime bill could be “the major domestic accomplishment of Clinton’s first term,” says a senior Justice aide. “That has not gone unappreciated around here—or at the White House. If health care doesn’t work, if welfare reform doesn’t work, this is going to be the thing.”
That the increasingly strained hopes of the Clinton administration should ride on such young shoulders might come as something of a surprise. Social critics have denounced the Clinton youth corps as a brood of ill-mannered bumblers. Ollie North has declared war on an administration replete with “twentysomething staffers with an earring and an ax to grind.” G.Q.’s Stephanie Mansfield warns of the perils of “government policy being formulated ... by propeller-beanied adolescents who were stringing macaroni necklaces during the last Democratic regime.” Even the Clintonites can’t resist taking potshots at the younger crew. Last month, a Washington Post reporter overheard White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes inquiring whether visiting Girl Scouts were members of the administration. Education Secretary Richard Riley, meanwhile, informs any reporter who will listen of “the Riley rule”: Before carrying out the bidding of the White House, find out the age of the staffer who made the call.
Ickes and Riley should think again. Clinton’s shadow government of twentysomething smoothies is perhaps the backbone of his administration. With the harried air of accountants—and a constant line of access to their patron, George Stephanopoulos, counselor to the president—they wade through reams of memos, spin out tales to reporters, manage the process of the presidency. Brushfires ignite that must be doused. Volcanic tempers erupt that must be soothed. But even in the midst of chaos, there is peace. “Anyone who can get through to George,” says White House Staff Secretary John Podesta, “is way ahead of the game in figuring out what’s going on here. He has really good judgment and really good advice. And he’s obviously extremely busy.”
Joshua Steiner, chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, befriended Stephanopoulos during the Dukakis campaign. Klain worked closely with Stephanopoulos when the two had top jobs on the Hill. Kevin Thurm, chief of staff to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, is Stephanopoulos’s Rhodes buddy from Oxford. “The three [staffers] you just mentioned are terrific,” says Stephanopoulos. “They’re all friends of mine. But why focus on young, hypereducated Jewish males? There’s a young woman at the National Security Council. She has a whole portfolio of U.N. issues!” Yet only Thurm, Klain, and Steiner have the capacity to send their peers into paroxysms of envy. “Unlike me, Kevin and Josh and Ron are good at what they do, and maintain their temper, and have that maturity,” says White House policy assistant Bob Boorstin, adding, “It makes you want to take a knife to yourself.” Agrees Deputy Director of Communications Rahm Emanuel: “People say I’m too aggressive, too focused. These guys are rare talents, and they’re personable.”
But their slickness also has something a little disconcerting about it. The Stephanopoulites do not have burning consciences. They are not crusaders for social reform. They are baby-faced enforcers, directed to sand the sharp edges off their undisciplined elders. Explains White House Deputy Director of Communications David Dreyer: “If, for the sake of argument, Shalala was bickering with Bentsen ... George could get on the telephone with Kevin and Josh and cool it in about thirty seconds.” In the course of cooling the clash of personalities, their job is to muffle the clash of ideas. They work for principals, not principles. They are, finally, pros.
When Klain worked in the White House counsel’s office as Clinton’s chief judge-picker, his age made him a natural focal point for Republican ire. “Should a 31-year-old law school graduate like Ron Klain be in charge of judicial appointment evaluations?” fretted former Reagan Justice Department official Steven Trott during a televised debate with Reno. “I have great respect for Ron Klain’s wisdom,” retorted the attorney general. She should. Klain has long displayed chillingly good political skills. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1987 he took a two-year clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Byron White, for whom he drafted substantial portions of the controversial 1989 decision in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Antonio. Hailed by conservatives as a blow against quotas, the decision made it harder for workers to prove discrimination. By the time civil rights legislation was being fought out in Congress, Klain had left the Supreme Court to become, at age 27, the youngest-ever chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. There, he played a strategic role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act—the legislation that helped undo Wards Cove. “Ron Klain does not let his emotions or his ideology get in the way of anything he does,” says fellow White clerk Paul Cappuccio.
During his tenure at the Judiciary Committee, Klain had been a leading architect of the omnibus crime package ultimately vetoed by George Bush. His grasp of the volatile politics of crime made him a natural Clintonite. When Communications Director Mark Gearan, then Clinton-Gore deputy campaign manager, called to ask if he was interested in signing onto the campaign, Klain accepted immediately. As Clinton’s chief adviser on criminal justice issues, it was Klain who thought up the 100,000 new cops initiative. “Clinton had a big crime speech coming up,” recalls John Kroger, the campaign’s deputy issues director. “We had no idea how many extra cops would be a good thing. [Domestic Policy Deputy] Bruce Reed and I called Ron from Little Rock. He said, “Would 100,000 be enough?’” After the election Klain worked on the transition team, helping vet prospective Cabinet members’ names before key senators. According to several sources, his was the lone voice urging Zoe Baird to disclose on the public portion of the Judiciary Committee’s questionnaire her failure to pay her nanny’s Social Security taxes, but he was overruled.
During the transition, Klain was considered for a range of positions in the White House. Clinton, however, was “insisting that he do judges,” according to Gearan; so Klain took a job in the White House counsel’s office as the lawyer in charge of judicial selection. During Clinton’s first year the White House counsel’s office became the locus for the administration’s more well-publicized miscues. Klain was one of those who balked at the nomination of Lani Guinier to be assistant attorney general. “The politically charged and difficult writings of Lani Guinier were identified by Ron early,” says former White House congressional liaison Howard Paster, now the president of Hill & Knowlton. “He flagged them before the nomination.” Klain’s relationship with his boss, Bernard Nussbaum, began to deteriorate soon after. “It was not an easy spot for [Klain] to be in,” says one White House staffer. “Here’s someone with maybe the best political instincts in the entire administration, working for a boss who had the worst. Every day it was, Bernie, we shouldn’t do this, we shouldn’t do that.”
Meanwhile, Reno’s confidence in her deputy, Philip Heymann, was evaporating; and with good reason. “Nobody at Justice had a relationship with the White House to formulate positions and be proactive as the [crime] bill moved through the Senate,” says one Justice Department staffer. “The department was not operating on all cylinders ... Lots of stuff was just flying away.” The result was a Senate version of the crime bill that bore few Clintonian fingerprints. When the House bill was taken up this year, the White House vowed to play a greater role. “It was clear that someone needed to be the point man, to pull things together and get the department to be real,” says a senior White House official.
Klain seemed an ideal solution from both the White House and Justice’s point of view. Not only could he serve as Reno’s de facto chief of staff; but as the person who had written the first omnibus crime legislation, he was the perfect candidate to manage the crime bill. Reno and Klain had a “long and close working relationship” dating back to her confirmation hearing. Reno had wanted Klain to come over straight after her confirmation, but Clinton, who was just getting his judge-picking operation off the ground, “felt he couldn’t spare him,” says Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. But by February, says another Justice aide, the president felt “it would be a big advantage ... to have a conduit over there, a voice singing off our songbook,” and he agreed to part with Klain.
Klain’s first move was pulling together a team of staffers to focus full-time on the crime bill. He tapped into his network of Hill contacts, enlisting Andrew Fois, who was chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee’s crime panel, and Elizabeth Fine, another House Judiciary veteran who more recently served with him in the White House counsel’s office. The new team’s first accomplishment was clarifying the administration’s position on the bill’s “three strikes” provision. Klain worked with his old colleague Cynthia Hogan, chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, to propose a genuinely narrow three-time loser provision, stating that the third felony must involve physical force against another person. After overcoming internal resistance from career holdovers in the Bureau of Prisons who feared overcrowding, Klain came back with a proposal that pleased both the White House and the Justice Department. The proposal was incorporated into the House version of the bill.
Klain also helped orchestrate the administration’s dramatic come-from-behind victory on the assault weapons ban—tallying swing votes, deploying Cabinet members to the Hill, commissioning a letter in support of the bill from former President Ronald Reagan. On the day of the vote he and Emanuel had an open line to each other all day. “At 2:30, the lean/nos started announcing. I started going fetal,” says Emanuel. “Ron was the one who said, `Actually, we can win this.’” The two of them drew up a list of members to target. “At 3:00, he called back. He said, `We’re at 206.’ I had 207. He said, what we need is this person, this person and this person.” Klain persuaded then-White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty to telephone four undecideds; the president made two of the calls himself. He then dispatched pro-ban police officers to lobby the remaining fence-sitters. The bill squeaked through the House.
But Klain’s biggest achievement has been curbing the obstreperous Reno, whose touchy-feely rhetoric and tense relations with the White House had marginalized her in the crime debate. Engaging Reno to help sell the crime bill was no easy task. She wasn’t for the 100,000 new cops proposal, says Klain, “until we sent her out on a crime bill trip ... and she came back saying, `You know what? Community policing works!’” He adds: “You look at her speeches since the crime bill—they’re all about the crime bill. And the crime bill reflects her whole agenda. She would shudder to hear the phrase `on message.’ But yes, she’s on message, because for her, it’s a better message.” The White House loves it. “Little things that used to get blown out of proportion because of lack of communication between the White House and Justice are now no big deal, because Ron is over here every morning for the crime meeting,” says one White House official. “He’s generating daily talking points for the Cabinet. It is an immense relief.”
Yet Klain’s penchant for compromise has obvious costs. The Senate bill contained three different “safety valve” provisions that would have exempted low-level drug offenders from the draconian prison terms imposed by mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, ranging from broad to virtually meaningless. Seeking to please all sides, the White House endorsed all three at Klain’s recommendation. At this writing, it’s anyone’s guess which option the joint House-Senate committee will choose. But the White House’s clear endorsement of a meaningful safety valve would have stiffened Democrats’ resolve. What’s more, instead of taking a position on the divisive Racial Justice Act, which corrects disparities in sentencing for crack and cocaine offenses and in applying the death penalty, Klain decided the administration should be “aggressively neutral” in its stance.
But political principles take second stage to the issue of Reno’s image. “We had an event here a few weeks ago,” Klain enthuses. “After she was gone a week or so on the crime bill trip, we did a welcome home rally for her. The president came over. They both talked abut the crime bill. And everyone was struck by how similar their remarks were!... The White House press corps came over. They saw them saying similar things. They saw them pushing the crime bill together. That’s what’s going to turn them around on the a.g.”
“George is ruthlessly and mercilessly efficient,” confides Dan Porterfield, an HHS speechwriter and member of Stephanopoulos and Thurm’s Rhodes scholar class. “Kevin doesn’t quite follow the George mode. He is perhaps not as efficient. He spends a little more time talking to people. The Kevin mode is to waste more time on the phone. George will have slightly more conversations with people during the course of the day—but they’ll all be fifteen seconds long.”
For Thurm, the extra schmoozing has paid off in spades. “Among my few attributes, that is one,” he says modestly. Says Ickes, who supervised Thurm in the Clinton-Gore New York office, “It sounds mundane, but one of the great abilities of a good chief of staff is the ability to get access. Typically, a secretary would herself have to call the deputy chief of staff ... There have been instances in which Kevin needs a decision turned around very quickly. And because of contacts he has with myself, George and others, if he calls and says it’s urgent, we will get back to him immediately. We will do what we can to help.” Says Shalala: “One of the reasons he got the job was that I wanted someone who knew all the key players, and had access to them. It’s useless to have a chief of staff who can’t get people on the phone, who can’t work the system for you.”
Sometimes the strategy works; sometimes it doesn’t. When Shalala last month learned the dismaying news about the removal of the Social Security Administration from hhs’s purview, Thurm “was on the line to George within seconds,” says an hhs staffer. Though the White House ultimately refused to back down on the decision, Thurm was able to secure Shalala a private meeting with Clinton to plead the issue. “Once the decision was made, we were happy to carry it out,” says Thurm. “Despite the president going in a way that maybe we didn’t want him to, we felt better about having the access to the White House.”
There’s nothing unusual about a little networking, but in Thurm the art has attained a new level of subtlety and calculation. Part of it is knowing just how hard to push. “He doesn’t call on George and Harold that often,” insists his special assistant, Jill Hargiss. “Especially if it’s something he doesn’t think he’ll win.” Part of it is lack of illusions about his own department. “hhs is so sprawling, and we have all these pain-in-the-ass little agencies yapping for our attention all the time,” says one hhs assistant secretary. “Kevin’s eye-view of the department is analogous to the White House’s.” Oozes Victor Zonana, hhs’s public affairs chief, “Kevin always says to me—and it’s real wisdom—that anyone who hasn’t expanded his network since getting here isn’t worth their salt. The point being that sure, he knew George and Harold. But now he knows everybody.”
Thurm’s admirers praise him in the blandly worshipful tones of a Rhodes recommendation. “He’s great at facilitating the process,” says hhs legislative affairs director Jerry Klepner. “But he knows that the process that matters most is the process of being a husband and father and son and friend.” Argues Porterfield: “He really is an extraordinarily grounded person ... He’s a constant source of comfort and perspective. `I know how you’re feeling,’ he’ll say, `What can I do?’” It is this air of intimate concern that has won him admirers across the administration. “When he asks you how you’re doing, he really wants to know,” marvels Margaret Williams, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief of staff.
Yet the chorus of praise is not universal. “George is a fascinating guy,” says one senior White House official. “Kevin is much more right place, right time. No real defects. No mountains, no valleys. He’s kind of your basic Rhodes scholar. Successful, but no one’s quite sure why.” And indeed, the pro-Thurm testimonials have a certain unspontaneous quality. In the middle of my conversation with Avis LaVelle, HHS’s deputy press secretary, Thurm called her. Shuttling between lines, LaVelle announced, “See, Kevin? I’m finally talking to what’s-her-face about you!” “Uh, hi, it’s me,” I said. “Oh, whoops, I thought you were Kevin,” she said.
During my interview with Thurm, he goes out of his way to display his harmony with the toiling classes. Offering me a cup of coffee, he asks that it be made known that “I have instructed my secretary not to ask people if they want coffee. That would be demeaning to her. I have asked her instead to provide a pitcher of coffee so that I, myself, could offer it to guests.” He then repeats the anecdote into my tape recorder. During a staff meeting I attended, he dangles a purple Slinky from his ear and makes labored pop culture references. “It’s complicated,” says an aide, “because Marcia Henderson has weighed in on this.” “Marcia Henderson?” Thurm cries. “Florence Henderson! `The Brady Bunch!’” “No, no, no,” says the staffer. “She’s been detailed over to Labor. But now opm wants her back.” “Wants her back!” Thurm hoots. “`I Want You Back!’ The Jackson Five!”
Asked what Thurm actually does all day, staffers respond with evasive banalities. “Part of it is base touching,” explains White House Cabinet Secretary Christine Varney. “The consultation aspect.” “A big part of the job is creating processes,” agrees Stephanopoulos. LaVelle will say only that Thurm “lives in a penumbra between policy and politics.” But another senior hhs official puts it more directly. “It’s cleaning up after the elephants,” says the official. “In a department this size, people fuck up a lot. [Thurm] is a genuinely nice man. But don’t let that niceness fool you. He’s tough.”
Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was one of Kevin’s wards. As her nomination got into trouble, Thurm enlisted Stephanopoulos and others in an all-out campaign on her behalf. On crisis days Thurm would toil in his office until 4 a.m., then return three hours later to participate in a White House conference call. For a few brief moments each lunch hour, an exhausted Thurm would “throw his head down on his desk, then pick it up again,” recalls Deputy hhs Secretary Walter Broadnax.
There was just one problem: Elders herself. “We had not the most cooperative nominee,” admits one official involved in the confirmation drama. “There would be periodic Joycelyn eruptions.” The low point came in early June last year. After being told many times not to talk to the press, she told The Baltimore Sun that yes, crack-addicted prostitutes should be able to get Norplant so that they could continue to have sex to keep buying drugs, “if they must.” It was time for Thurm to go to work. “I don’t know what happened in that room, or what he said to her,” marvels the official. “All I know is that Joycelyn stopped erupting.” According to a staffer who witnessed the dressing down, Thurm explained “that she really wasn’t in Arkansas anymore, that this place was different, that it wasn’t just you and your reputation; there were other things at stake.” Thurm admits that he and Elders had “a series of kind of heavy conversations.”
You would think such tasks might seem disagreeable to one famed for his winning ways. But Thurm bears the burden cheerfully. “I was a camp counselor once,” he says. Colleagues argue the job is perfect for him. “He’s part disciplinarian, part charmer,” explains Zonana. “His job is a clean-up job. It’s picking up after people. It’s keeping people in line.”
Shalala is the other person Thurm monitors for the White House. “When Kevin went in, he was presented with a very difficult challenge,” says one senior staffer. “There he was, with a secretary who was furious because a central part of her job had been put off to this White House [health care] task force. Kevin did a miraculous job of reining her in, getting her to understand what the White House was looking for. That was tough, really tough.” Another staffer confirms that Thurm “was the person who was instructed to tell Shalala when she fucked up. It was his job to go in and say, ‘Look, the White House is unhappy, this is how we should handle things in the future.’”
When Shalala announced last July that the Clinton plan would cover illegal aliens, the White House was livid. “Hello! Hello! This is not policy!” says one White House staffer. “If it’s not policy, don’t fucking say it.” Boorstin dispatched Thurm to reprimand Shalala. “Kevin can be real tough with her,” another staffer says admiringly. “He read her the riot act.” Shalala herself concedes, “I do talk to Kevin about how to say things ... I certainly tripped up a couple of times early on.” When Shalala announced in April 1993 that the administration was considering a value-added tax to finance health care, it “really caused a huge fuss,” says a White House official. “A whole lot of meetings, the First Lady saying, `What the hell is going on?’” Once again, Thurm had the unhappy task of reprimanding his putative boss. But this time, hostilities were slower to ebb. “There were bad feelings about my principal,” Thurm admits. So he called Stephanopoulos and suggested a meeting between Shalala and Clinton, “just to clear the air ... to remind everyone that we were all in this together.” The meeting served its purpose, Thurm says: “People got a better sense of who she was.”
But according to several White House staffers, Thurm’s primary accomplishment has been helping to end the war that smoldered between Shalala and the First Lady from the time the special health care task force was announced and Shalala essentially was cut out. “People weren’t spitting at each other, but it wasn’t pleasant to be around,” says an hhs staffer. At one point, things got so bad that Rodham Clinton began referring to her old Children’s Defense Fund pal as “those people at hhs.” To rescue things, Thurm deployed his Rhodie networking skills. “He one day dropped by my office,” says Williams. “He didn’t have any particular business. The First Lady had had a very full schedule. The two times we’d talked that day, he’d realized I’d either gotten back to him very late, or the conversation was rushed. Well, later that day he came by the office. He left on my chair a note essentially saying, `Thinking about you,’ plus a beautiful silk scarf that had all these faces of children on it. What a kindness from Kevin!”
The kindness paid off. “When people were supposed to be upset with the White House, or vice versa, Maggie and I were able to have a conversation,” says Thurm. “It helped to have Maggie sending signals over there and me sending signals over here.” When tensions mounted over the White House health care task force, “it was just great that our relationship was such that we could pick up the phone and make sure that things didn’t blow up.” Even more important, “at some point Maggie started coordinating with the White House on health care. She made sure that I was included in those meetings, or that there was some kind of hhs presence in those meetings ... I think the bigger picture is that we communicated quite a bit.”
Says a senior White House staffer, “[Thurm] is beloved here at the White House. [Shalala] has undergone a transformation from the first six months, from the point where she was seen as the most endangered Cabinet secretary ... to the point where she now remains very stably in the mix. She hasn’t stuck her neck out as much. And a lot of the credit for that should go to Kevin.”
“Know ye that reposing my special trust and confidence in the integrity and ability of Joshua Linder Steiner, I do appoint him Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the Treasury.” So reads the framed presidential commission that adorns the back wall of Joshua Steiner’s inner salon, an elegant room with painted ceilings thirty feet high. On a giant oak writing desk, memos, drafts and requests have been stacked, each a little lower than the next, so that the top of each is visible. There is an in box, an out box and, titillatingly, a box that reads “top secret.”
Back in his pre-Whitewater days, Steiner was an undisputed administration success story. “I remember being in a meeting in Mack McLarty’s office,” recalls National Economic Council (NEC) deputy director Gene Sperling. “Josh comes in and says something to Bentsen. Rubin turns to Bentsen and says, ‘Is that your new aide de camp?’ Bentsen says, ‘You bet it is!’ Rubin goes, ‘You steal him from [Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger] Altman?’ Bentsen says, ‘You bet I did!’ Meanwhile, McLarty is jumping in, saying, ‘Impressive young man.’ ... Stephanopoulos and I, of course, jumped in to puff him up, because we’re both friends of his. But we could have kept our mouths shut. It was a total lovefest. There is something about this guy. He just exudes competence.”
But now Steiner exudes controversy as well. Was Stephanopoulos simply blowing off steam when he called his old chum Steiner to complain about the Resolution Trust Corporation’s (RTC) hiring of Clinton foe Jay Stephens? Or was he trying to stymie Stephens’s work? The evidence suggests the former, which is what makes Steiner’s celebrity so ironic. He represents the nightmare of the Stephanopoulites: the criminalization of access.
Meanwhile, Steiner’s musings on his improbable ordeal are keeping scores of Washington lawyers in business. Whitewater special prosecutor Robert Fiske is using Steiner’s diary as a guide for his probe. Amid the psychodrama, some of Steiner’s fans in the White House have flaked off. “If he had political acumen, he wouldn’t have kept a diary,” grumbles one senior administration official. “He wouldn’t have had those meetings [with RTC officials].” But others remain boosters. “He handled that pretty well, didn’t he?” remarks Altman. “He kept his balance throughout. He refused to take it out on anyone.” The Monday after the scandal hit the papers, Steiner showed up at the White House’s 9:30 a.m. crime bill meeting. “He was very good-natured about it,” recalls Reed. “He told us that his parents were disappointed that all the papers referred to him as Josh instead of Joshua. We thought that was a pretty mature response.” At a meeting the next day, Reed continues, “we decided we needed to call Josh to get Treasury involved. George made some crack about how he’d call him. They both joke about it ... That to me evinces the fact that this is not a real lasting thing for either of them.”
Privately, however, Steiner is racked and humiliated by his role in the controversy. “He hates the thought that something he did could reflect badly on the department,” says a friend. “And he’s worried about his reputation.” Says a Treasury aide close to Steiner: “Most of the time he keeps it under control. But sometimes he looks sort of tired ... You wish you could take care of him.” At the height of the imbroglio, Steiner called up longtime family friend Roger Rosenblatt. “When he was 3 years old, I used to sing him the Felix the Cat song,” says Rosenblatt. “During the midst of his troubles, he called and asked, ‘Could you sing Felix the Cat?’ So I sang the song: ‘Felix the Cat. The wonderful, wonderful cat. Whenever he gets in trouble, he reaches into his bag of tricks.’ But poor Josh didn’t have any bag of tricks.”
Well, maybe just a few. Although Bentsen has privately fretted to associates that keeping a diary “was a damn fool thing for [Steiner] to do,” he has been publicly supportive of his chief of staff, telling The Washington Post on April 2 that he had “full confidence in [Steiner’s] integrity and ability and ethics.” And he’s been kind to Steiner: The day the story hit, Bentsen summoned the terrified aide into his office. “This is going to pass,” he told him. “I have confidence in you and your ability to do your job.”
Meanwhile, Steiner has shelved his note-taking. “I talked to Josh a couple of weeks ago,” chuckles Jack DeVore, Bentsen’s former press secretary. “He assures me he is no longer keeping a diary.”
A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an alumnus of Andover, Steiner graduated from Yale in 1988 with a degree in history. “No honors,” he recalls. “Straight B-plus average. I did graduate, though.” After school he signed on with the Dukakis campaign, working on the issues staff and serving as the candidate’s aide on the road. Following the election, Steiner roamed the globe—touring Asia, spending a year studying at Oxford and serving a brief stint as an election observer in Pakistan, working for the National Democratic Institute. Through it all, he stayed in contact with Stephanopoulos and other Dukakis warriors—Boorstin, Podesta, Sperling and Sylvia Matthews, later to become a top NEC staffer. In 1991 Stephanopoulos, by then a top aide to House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, recruited Steiner to serve as chief aide to New York Public Library President Timothy S. Healy, the quintessential Rhodie sinecure (Stephanopoulos once held the job himself).
In December 1992 Stephanopoulos came to Steiner with another job offer: Would he come to Washington to work for Altman on the transition team? Steiner accepted, and spent the next month pulling dramatic all-nighters, organizing, “doing cluster groups, writing long memos for the principals.” The spadework paid off, as Steiner parlayed his transition post into a job as Altman’s right hand at Treasury. His first big trial by fire was helping Altman run the White House’s budget war room. “You can just imagine Roger coming in there and having some arrogant kid like Josh at his side,” says Sperling. “Well, Roger came in ego-free. And Josh turned out to be everything that facilitated this for Roger ... He made sure things got done, but he was respectful.”
Meanwhile, change was fermenting at Treasury. Longtime Bentsen aide Philip Diehl was not an unqualified success as Treasury chief of staff. He did not quite have the connections to get things done. Before DeVore could qualify for his retirement benefits, he needed a letter from the president accepting his resignation. Diehl vowed to get it for him. “Two months later, I became concerned,” recalls Devore. “Another two months went by. It still hadn’t come through. I was going to leave. I went to Josh. I said, can you get me this letter? He said, write down what you want it to say ... He gave it to his friend John Podesta. I had my letter the next day.”
Such distinctions were not lost on the management consulting firm KPMG. Peat Marwick, hired by an exasperated Bentsen in December of 1993 to tell him how to wrest some sort of control over his own department. According to a staffer who’s seen the report, Peat Marwick urged Bentsen to replace Diehl with the hyperconnected Steiner. “They basically concluded that Josh was the most effective thing around,” says the staffer. Bentsen promptly offered Steiner the job; and after a brief spasm of pro forma anguish (“Josh wanted to make sure people didn’t think he was doing the wrong thing, leaving the man he came down with,” says a friend) he moved over to Bentsen’s office.
Career Treasury officials were befuddled by the announcement. “It was astounding,” says one. “I have no problem with young people running things. I might draw the line at having a 28-year-old without finance experience running the Treasury Department.” Steiner’s Whitewater antics haven’t done much to bring the skeptics around. “The most noteworthy aspect is he’s done it at a young age,” says one senior Treasury official and longtime Bentsen aide. “But to go from that to the point where he’s a young Henry Kissinger—I’m not sure that’s called for. He’s had his fifteen minutes of fame.” Later, he adds: “Josh has a lot of relationships that predate this administration. He would not be where he is now if he did not have those relationships ... He would be the first to admit that.”
But that’s precisely the point. At the time of Steiner’s arrival in January of 1994, Bentsen, a potential Cabinet powerhouse, had found himself publicly delooped. The problem? The kindly, monarchical Texan lacked “someone to work things out with the more politically oriented twentysomethings in the administration,” says Undersecretary of Treasury Lawrence Summers. “These are not people the secretary has a long track record with.” Another Treasury official puts it more bluntly: “If you’re chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and some smart-ass, snot-nose White House staffer pops off about you to a reporter, it’s a simple matter to shut that off. You go to Mack McLarty and you say, `Say, Mack. Remember that assistant secretary nomination you wanted to rush through the committee? Well, we’re very busy. We’ve postponed that indefinitely.’ If you’re secretary of the Treasury, you have no recourse except to plead to Mack, who will say, `I am outraged.’” Steiner, the staffer continues, “has friends throughout that White House. When it comes to critical comments in the press, it is helpful as an inhibitor ... He’ll be able to pin down who it was. There is a fear factor and an affection factor. And in that regard, Josh just has to be extremely helpful to Lloyd Bentsen.”
Not to mention the White House. Steiner has been “extremely effective in negotiating between the White House and what the secretary will do,” says an administration official. “He reads the secretary really well.” The main part of Steiner’s job, like Klain’s, is image maintenance: managing the staging of Bentsen’s events, shaping his day-to-day role within the administration. In Washington, where appearance can be reality, “an agency’s clout is tied to the perceived clout of its leaders,” says a White House staffer close to Steiner. “Josh has worked pretty carefully at beating back the notion that Bentsen is out of the loop, or just there temporarily. To the extent that people believed that garbage, it undermined his ability to get things done.”
Gearan elaborates on how this has worked in practice: “What Josh has is an ability to move around the building effortlessly. Some people can walk into a room and people are kind of glad they’re there ... You never get the sense that he is inserting himself inappropriately.” During his first week on the job Steiner deployed these charms to get his boss into the mix on the crime bill. He called up Reed and asked to be included in the White House’s daily crime meeting. “I remember saying, `You can come, but it has to be you,’” says Reed. “Not just any representative. At that point it was kind of a White House/Justice thing. We were kind of making an exception by including him.” During the meetings, Steiner lobbied relentlessly for a greater Bentsen role in helping to sell the administration’s crime package. “Our rapport with Josh helped give Bentsen a prominent role in the crime debate,” says one participant. “During those meetings, he just kept pushing and pushing, making sure no one forgot that Bentsen was a hunter, a good old boy; that this would be a natural role for him.”
Steiner also moved to choreograph a public relations campaign for Bentsen’s new role—producing “a snappy little flip book on assault weapons”; making sure Bentsen “had a street sweeper in his hand every day for a week,” according to one Treasury official. Says Michael Levy, Treasury’s director of legislative affairs, “I’m supposed to be the guy who runs the secretary’s life on the Hill. Not to make the secretary sound like a Potemkin village, which he’s not, but Josh was the one who said, you know, that it would really be very useful for Bentsen to be seen going up the stairs of the Capitol, flanked by police officers. We ended up bringing in a group of police officers to line the stairs of the Capitol. Bentsen and Schumer came down, shaking hands and schmoozing. It made for great visuals on T.V. It made the front page of USA Today.”
Steiner has also assumed other image-making duties, maneuvering to raise Bentsen’s profile as a successful component of Clinton’s foreign policy team. “When we were thinking about the D-Day trip, [Steiner] went out of his way to make sure I was aware of Bentsen’s war history,” says Gearan. When the State Department tried to freeze Bentsen out of the trip, arguing that the trip was diplomatic rather than cooperative, Steiner lobbied persistently for a role for the secretary. Then, at a photo-op at Coleville Cemetery, he went into action. “CNN was going to go into live coverage at 3:00,” recalls Gearan. “Joshua was told that if Bentsen didn’t get over to the set by ten of 3:00, he wouldn’t make it on [CNN]. He started personally running the distance of the gravestones for CNN, hooking up the wires. I was in the press filing room. I look up on the screen. There’s Lloyd Bentsen! And I thought, that’s Josh. Kicking into high gear to make things happen for his principal.”
Washington has always been awash in impatient, self-important, highly educated, exceedingly willing young things; and so the generational reading of these success stories is popular, but, finally, it is not terribly interesting. Anyway, this is a city that ages its young very quickly. Kevin Thurm is balding. Ron Klain is roly-poly; you can hear him breathe. On the marked-up legal pad he carries around with him, a corner is reserved for personal items. “Mom,” it reads. “Gym.”
The nature of the Stephanopoulites’ success is more revealing than their age. For these are the new breed of professional meritocratic politicians, obsessed with process and with bureaucratic agility. They are politically partisan, but they are unencumbered by philosophy. The distinction between who they know and what they know is very fine. They are not just handlers, but they would not be much offended if you thought they were. For handling, they will argue with some justice, has overwhelmed not only American politics, but also American government. They are not exactly cynics, but irony has been bred into their bones. And so, even as they protest a lofty loyalty to the aims of the administration, they maintain a certain distance from their own activity. They understand that on some level it’s all a game.
Under their watch, things get done. Decisions get made. Staffers are stroked; principals nudged into line. Because of them, the administration is more effective, less incoherent. They are the solution, in part, to Clinton’s competence problem; but that they are the solution is itself a problem. The real surprise about many of the twentysomethings and the thirtysomethings in the administration is that they are uncannily similar to many of the fortysomethings and the fiftysomethings in the administration. The Stephanopoulites, too, can spin and prettify; and they, too, are flexible about principles and a little indifferent about ideas. They are the president’s perfect children.
This article originally appeared in the July 18, 1994, issue of the magazine.