Politics & Government

Williams returns to familiar role as Clinton faces crucial primaries

WASHINGTON — Maggie Williams has returned to Hillary Clinton's side to preside over either another second wind for the senator's presidential hopes, or their last gasp.

"A labor of love" is how Williams explained why she took on the job as campaign manager. "She (Clinton) has always been a solid touchstone for me at different points in my life. ...I have an unflinching belief in her heart."

Williams, 53, is part of a tight circle of battle-tested veterans around the former first lady who quickly respond when their general sounds the call to arms. The fight hasn't always been glorious, and Williams has the scars to prove it.

But her loyalty has never wavered since she joined Clinton's circle during the 1992 presidential campaign. The then-first lady made her a White House aide and subsequently her chief of staff.

When Clinton, the Democratic senator from New York, asked her longtime confidante to take control of her faltering presidential campaign last month, Williams didn't hesitate, taking a leave from her private consulting business in Rhode Island.

Now, Williams faces a do-or-die test Tuesday for her candidate as primary voters cast ballots in two key states, Ohio and Texas, as well as in Vermont and Rhode Island.

With few victories in the big states over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — who has steamrolled her in nearly a dozen states — Clinton is certain to face enormous pressure to withdraw should she lose.

"Yes, undeniably, Texas and Ohio are very important to us, and we expect to do well on Tuesday," Williams said. "I also believe that letting this process play out in all the states and hearing from the American people is also very important."

The race in Texas remains close, according to polls. And on Monday, a gust of cautious optimism blew through Clinton's campaign offices in suburban Virginia when an Ohio poll put her ahead of Obama by nine points.

Williams said a political mentor once told her a truism about politics that the 2008 contest has proven over and over:

"He said, 'Maggie, never be surprised. Anything can happen.'"

Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, a Clinton backer, said Clinton was smart to summon Williams to rejuvenate her campaign. He said the senator's "debacle'' in the South Carolina primary in January was a wake-up call that the campaign needed to woo voters more aggressively.

"She (Williams) is tough enough to make decision that others, for whatever reasons, couldn't seem to make," said Cleaver, who has known Williams since her White House days and he was the mayor of Kansas City.

"When you're talking about getting into a boxing ring and punching all the way to the end of the fight, that's Maggie Williams."

Margaret Ann Williams learned politics at her mother's knee. Erma Williams was a schoolteacher who later founded the day care center at Paseo Baptist Church. Her father, the late John Williams, worked for the federal government. They taught her that politics could change the world.

She has three siblings. Their parents, Williams said, "wanted us in the world. They talked about getting us ready to live our lives."

She was only 5 in 1960 when her mother made her watch the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate. She was 8 in 1963 when they watched Martin Luther King Jr. give his "I Have a Dream" speech.

"I'll never forget — my mom was snapping beans into a bowl and she had tears running down her face," Williams said. "This seemed to have made her so sad. But she kept saying she was happy."

In the early 1970s, they watched the Watergate hearings together.

Williams knew the kind of life she wanted. She enrolled in Trinity College in the nation's capital to study political science.

"I knew I wanted to go to Washington," she said. "It seemed to be the center of where you could make things happen for people."

Williams met Clinton through her work at the Children's Defense Fund in the 1980s when Clinton chaired the board of directors. Then the White House beckoned.

"I admired her skills as a communicator and thought she would be able to handle with aplomb whatever happened," Clinton wrote in her memoir, "Living History."

Much did happen, and Williams had to weather years of scandal-related investigations, which took a toll on her emotionally and financially.

Along with other aides to the first lady, she testified before the Republican-led Congress investigating the Whitewater real estate scandal. Lawmakers questioned her about files missing from the office of White House aide Vincent Foster, a friend of hers and Clinton's who had committed suicide. She broke down under the questioning.

"Everything that happened is not some big plot," she told the committee, according to "A Woman in Charge," Carl Bernstein's biography of Clinton.

Williams said that as painful as that period was, it "helped me affirm my own personal strength and my own personal faith."

That has come in handy in trying to right a campaign that's been searching for a steady hand.

"She brings terrific judgment, and her willingness to come in and do this job is inspirational to other people," said Kiki McLean, a Democratic strategist who's aiding the campaign.

One of Williams' toughest hurdles remains overcoming the impression among many voters that they know Clinton; Williams said it's an impression that's been defined by others. But she remains optimistic.

"I feel like I'm standing on the edge each day and wonder what's going to happen," she said.