Politics & Government

Longtime Clinton pal rides to troubled campaign's rescue

WASHINGTON — With her presidential campaign in crisis, Hillary Clinton has turned to someone she regularly leaned on in the White House whenever controversy swirled or problems needed fixing: Maggie Williams.

Williams, a fiercely loyal longtime friend, confidante and former chief of staff for first lady Clinton, returns to a familiar place — by Clinton's side, this time as the manager of her presidential campaign.

In taking over for Patti Solis Doyle, who quit earlier this month, Williams inherits an operation that appears to have been outspent, outmaneuvered and out-hustled by Barack Obama's campaign. After a string of lopsided losses over the last week, Clinton's campaign is pinning its hopes on halting Obama by running the table of remaining big-state primaries: Texas and Ohio on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22.

If anyone can pull together a shaken and divided staff to accomplish that, it's Williams, according to her former colleagues and critics.

" 'Hillaryland,' the whole persona, was crafted by Maggie," said Neel Lattimore, whom Williams hired to be Clinton's press secretary when she was first lady. "The loyalty thing was crafted at the top by Maggie and it filtered down. She was loyal to the president and Mrs. Clinton — and you were, too."

Williams maintains a low profile; the Clinton campaign declined to make her available for an interview. But she's earned a reputation as a detail-oriented, tough but tender taskmaster who expects, and gets, the best out of co-workers.

"She has very good judgment on issues and people," said Leon Panetta, who served as President Clinton's White House chief of staff when Williams ran the first lady's staff. "She'll tell Hillary what she thinks. I think what they're looking for is someone who is a taskmaster, who can spot what weaknesses they have and where their people need to be. If Maggie doesn't know, she'll talk to people who will give her straight answers."

Lattimore said that Williams was also a risk-taker who would put people in jobs that might run counter to their skill sets or resumes and still expect positive results. She hired him to be Hillary Clinton's spokesman despite his never having been a press secretary before.

Williams isn't a micromanager, but she'll quickly and directly let people know if they've made mistakes.

"She doesn't tolerate fools easily," Panetta said. "She's not somebody who will pound the table. But she has what I call 'The Look.' "

That look, Lattimore said, switches her eyes from peaceful pools to "more focused, then you realize you're in the laser zone of Maggie."

"It's not just a look; she will tell you that you made a mistake calmly, meticulously, and that's that, she's finished," he said. "But 'The Look' is one of those things that will turn you to ash quickly."

The relationship between Williams and Hillary Clinton goes back more than a quarter-century to when the two worked for the Children's Defense Fund, Williams as communications director and Clinton as a board member.

Friends say the two were attracted by their similarities and their differences. Both are middle-class daughters of the Midwest, Clinton from Chicago, Williams from Kansas City. Both are Ivy League: Clinton, Yale Law; Williams, the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications graduate school. Clinton is white, Williams African-American.

"Maggie brings to the process a different perspective on how she approaches problems or issues, which complements Mrs. Clinton's," Lattimore said. "Mrs. Clinton is a lawyer and thinks in one area. Maggie thinks in a different area. They are two magnets that actually pull towards each other because of their differences."

Williams left the Children's Defense Fund in 1990 to attend Penn. But Clinton found herself drawn to her, seeking media and political advice as her husband was running for president. Williams eventually moved to Little Rock, Ark., to help Hillary Clinton with media work during the campaign.

After Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential election, Williams became Hillary Clinton's "transition director" in Arkansas, then moved to Washington to be her White House chief of staff.

Williams had an office in the West Wing right next to the first lady's, something almost unheard-of in previous administrations. Her office location and official title — assistant to the president — signified her power.

She played a leading role in some of the Clintons' '90s controversies.

In 1995, a uniformed Secret Service officer alleged that he saw Williams leave the office of Vince Foster — a White House lawyer and close friend of Hillary Clinton's — with documents after Foster committed suicide. Williams denied the allegation, and passed two polygraph tests.

She also testified in Senate hearings into allegations of wrongdoing by the Clintons in the Arkansas Whitewater land deal.

Her loyalty to the Clintons came at a price: six-figure legal bills for her defense.

She left the White House in 1997 and moved to Paris, but her loyalty to the Clintons remained. After returning to the United States, she went to work for former President Clinton as the chief of staff of his Clinton Foundation in New York.

"It's not about money or what it means to her; it's totally about her service or whatever she can do to help Hillary — or Bill Clinton — out of a difficult moment," Panetta said. "One thing about Maggie: You always know she'll be there when it gets tough."