Political savvy, expensive degrees lead to staff jobs ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


January 16, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- They are the young guns of the new administration, men and women in their 20s and 30s whose drive and ambition has brought them to the gates of the White House and presidential power.

On Thursday, President-elect Bill Clinton announced his picks for dozens of White House staff positions, jobs that don't always make headlines but often play a key role in managing day-to-day operations and shaping policies.

Many of those chosen were in college the last time a Democrat was president; a few were in grade school. Unlike most of George Bush's advisers, who spent years in the world of business or Republican politics, these new faces made their mark quickly, often powered by expensive college degrees.

Many bear a resemblance to Mr. Clinton in their desire for success in politics and academia. Like Mr. Clinton and his wife Hillary, they attended Ivy League schools. And like Mr. Clinton, whose experience with George McGovern in 1972 was a lesson in defeat, they were first tested in the Dukakis campaign, which ended in disaster.

At 28, Lisa Caputo is one of the Dukakis veterans who now finds herself heading to the White House as Hillary Clinton's press secretary.

"I haven't really had a chance to stop and think about it," Ms. Caputo said. "I am a very fortunate person. I'm going to be a part of history, and that's very exciting."

Ms. Caputo said she isn't surprised that Mr. Clinton decided to tap so many young people. "I don't think it's a question of age," she said. "I think what you're seeing is a gathering of the cream of the crop, intellectually and professionally. They are brilliant people."

The youngest person on the White House staff could well be Baltimore native Steve Cohen, 23, of Pikesville. He hasn't received a title yet but is set to be a member of the White House press office.

Mr. Cohen, a graduate of Pikesville High School, joined the Clinton campaign straight out of Washington University. It was just two weeks after Mr. Clinton had announced his bid for the presidency.

"I couldn't have imagined when I walked in there that first day that it would lead straight to the White House," said Mr. Cohen, who earned the nickname "Scoop" during the campaign. "I haven't seen a game at Camden Yards yet, and I hope to go if President Clinton throws the first pitch on opening day."

Unlike picks for the Cabinet, where ethnic and racial diversity were prime considerations, many of the White House staff posts are being filled by white males. Among 16 top assistants to the president, there are only five women -- two of the them are black and one is Hispanic.

The archetype of the new breed is 31-year old George Stephanopoulos. Named as White House director of communications, Mr. Stephanopoulos will oversee Mr. Clinton's dealings with the media as the administration's chief spin doctor.

A 1982 graduate of Columbia University, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, just like his boss. After heading a congressional office during the mid-1980s, Mr. Stephanopoulos vaulted to the position of deputy communications director for the Dukakis campaign.

Although some campaign staffers left politics in a funk following Mr. Dukakis' defeat, Mr. Stephanopoulos was not among them. He soon became the floor leader for House majority leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., leaving that job in 1991 to join the Clinton campaign.

Working 14-hour days during the campaign, Mr. Stephanopoulos emerged as a familiar face on television and has conducted the transition team's daily briefings. He has even attracted a following of female admirers, gaining the nickname "Gorgeous George."

Although Mr. Stephanopoulos stands out, he is far from unusual. There is his immediate deputy, press secretary Dee Dee Myers, 31, who is the first woman ever to hold that job in the White House. Rahm Emmanuel, 33, served as the Clinton campaign's successful chief fund-raiser and been rewarded with the post of White House director of political affairs.

At 34, Gene Sperling is deputy assistant to the president for economic policy. A graduate of Yale Law School like Bill and Hillary Clinton, he also served his time in the Dukakis campaign.

Nancy Soderberg's story is similar to those of George Stephanopoulos and Gene Sperling.

Ten years ago, Ms. Soderberg was a summer intern with the United Nations in Africa. Now, at age 34, she is the staff director of the National Security Council.

Ms. Soderberg, who lived in Timonium as a teen-ager, paid her dues with the campaigns of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. After serving as a senior foreign policy adviser to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, she also jumped to the Clinton campaign.

Now Ms. Soderberg and the other young guns are poised for what former White House staffers describe as the roller-coaster ride of their lives.

"It was extraordinarily fun," said Hendrik Hertzberg, who became a speech writer for Jimmy Carter at age 33 and was promoted to chief speech writer two years later. "It is a fantasy come true to be a White House aide, running around in motorcades, flying on Air Force One. I don't know if we always realized, though, what an amazing thing was happening to us."

"In some ways it was the high point of my life," said Mr. Hertzberg, who later served as editor of the New Republic magazine and is now executive editor of the New Yorker. "There is an intensity to it that is dictated by its impermanence, by its extremes highs and lows."

Jeff Eller, 36, is already contemplating the new life that awaits him in the nation's capital.

"It's a little awe-inspiring," said Mr. Eller, the new White House director for media affairs. "When I get back to Washington on Sunday night and look at the monuments, it's going to be different. All of a sudden things seem a lot bigger."

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