Can This Man Save Bill Clinton's Hide?

In a corner of Deputy Chief of Staff John D. Podesta's White House office sits a table piled with kitschy X-Files memorabilia. Dubbed "the shrine," it is a testament to his devotion to all things techie, from sci-fi to the arcana of encryption policy.

But these days, Podesta doesn't have much time for Mulder and Scully. A whippet of a man with a nervous laugh, Podesta, 49, has emerged from the shadows to direct the battle to save the Clinton Presidency. That puts him at center stage in The X-Rated Files--a drama pitting Clinton against Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr. "John's in the eye of the storm--make that cesspool," commiserates former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes.

Podesta's job could get a lot tougher fast: He is the leading in-house candidate to succeed Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, who is heading home to North Carolina soon to weigh a run for governor. Podesta won't speculate about a possible promotion, but his boss is effusive. "He knows how to get things done in Congress. He finishes things. And he makes me laugh," says Bowles.

Podesta's wry sense of humor has made him popular with other Clintonites, too. But, says one associate: "John can go from being a stitch to being very abrupt, moody, and secretive." Perhaps such funks are understandable, considering his challenge. Although Clinton weathered both the release of Starr's report and the airing of his explicit Aug. 17 grand jury testimony, Democrats still fear the scandal will devastate candidates this fall.

"FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT." Podesta is trying to dampen the pessimism. He is blitzing Capitol Hill to give pep talks to panicky Democrats and dangling a deal that could result in a quick censure of the President. And he has rushed in reinforcements to bolster ties to the Hill, tapping several former White House lobbyists as volunteer firefighters. "They're trying to make [Democrats] feel more secure and get them out of town" to hit the campaign trail, explains a lobbyist advising Team Podesta. "Then the idea is to work on a few members who are straying." Party pols cheer Podesta's efforts, but doubts linger. "There's no one I'd rather have in a bunker with me," says Democratic consultant Joe Trippi. "The question is, can anyone get out of this bunker alive?"

Ultimately, Podesta's scandal-control strategy rests on shifting Clinton's defense away from legalistic claims that he didn't commit perjury to the more salable notion that sexual indiscretions don't warrant removal. By harping on the idea that Republicans are engaging in a vendetta, the White House hopes to keep Democratic and independent voters from straying in November.

It may be working. According to a CBS News poll conducted after the grand jury videotape aired, the President's job approval rating soared to 68%, from 59%. Says Democratic consultant Michael Berman: "The hemorrhaging has stopped."

Republicans insist that Clinton's good tidings will be short-lived. And they're irked that a longtime activist such as Podesta could soon be directing defense strategy from the Chief of Staff's office. Hill Republicans view the more conservative Bowles as "an honest broker," says a GOP leadership aide. But Podesta is "a partisan who will fight, fight, fight to the end."

VALLEY GUY. Podesta--a lawyer who has been involved in national politics since 1968 and directed research on opposition candidates for the '88 Dukakis campaign--has strong ties to labor and other liberal groups. As a top staffer for Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), now Minority Leader, Podesta often butted heads with Republicans. "He always was the most knowledgeable person in the room," recalls Leahy. Adds Daschle: "John has one of the best networks in town."

But Podesta isn't just a liberal caricature. On the Hill, he became fascinated with technology and is now well-versed on data encryption and privacy issues. His heart may be with labor and environmentalists, but his head is in the Information Age. "Podesta is one of the few people in the White House attuned to Silicon Valley," says Dan Schnur, a GOP technology consultant in California.

Republican stalwarts dismiss Podesta as a second-stringer who isn't up to the job of leading Clinton's survival fight. But those who have watched his steady climb say it's risky to underestimate him. "John will never have the buddy-buddy relationship with the President that Erskine has," says a friend. "But maybe that's not what Clinton needs right now. Maybe he just needs a lawyer with political smarts." And a touch of X-Files paranoia, too.

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