A quiet return to the corridors of power

December 13, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Fridays, almost without fail, the White House gates swing open for a trim, dark-haired visitor whose arrival signals a remarkable comeback.

His name is Tony Coelho, and he's regarded as a wise man by those who labor in the administration's inner sanctum.

Once the fastest-rising Democratic star on Capitol Hill, he fled Congress in 1989 amid questions about his financial dealings. His quiet return to the corridors of power is only the latest turn in the life of a man who set out to become a priest, only to be rejected because he was an epileptic, and who wound up in politics through the intercession of comedian Bob Hope.

Today, at 51, he is a partner in a Wall Street investment bank, cleared of any wrongdoing after a lengthy federal investigation and earning a lucrative living. On the side, he's an unpaid adviser to the highest circles of the Clinton White House.

He meets regularly with White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty and other senior staff members. "I don't know if it's every Friday," says Mr. McLarty, sounding a tad uneasy about discussing Mr. Coelho's behind-the-scenes role.

But there's no doubting he's a player.

He's become an unofficial back channel between Capitol Hill and the White House, relaying messages from his friends in Congress to top Clinton aides.

"I have told the president personally that I think Tony is somebody who can help them in terms of advice and counsel," says Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House Democratic caucus chairman and Mr. Coelho's closest friend in Congress. "Tony's as good as anybody I know in how you spin things to the public."

During the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Coelho counseled the White House not to attack House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (another close friend) for opposing NAFTA. This hands-off attitude allowed Mr. Gephardt to satisfy his allies in organized labor without preventing President Clinton from winning the NAFTA vote. Now, Mr. Gephardt is the House point man on health care reform, the defining issue of the Clinton presidency.

Lately, Mr. Coelho has been urging the White House to set up an informal club for the 50 or 60 Democrats who are Mr. Clinton's core supporters on Capitol Hill. The idea, he explained in an interview, is to reward the president's most loyal backers in Congress -- who might be feeling ignored after Mr. Clinton cut a number of highly publicized deals with recalcitrant lawmakers to pass the budget and NAFTA.

"You take them to Camp David. Bring them to the White House. Have them to dinner and a movie and popcorn," he says. !B "Basically, open up personally and share your presidency with them in a way that makes them feel personally committed to you."

White House aides praise Mr. Coelho's powers of political analysis. "I just think he is one of the smartest heads about politics and issues," says Mark Gearan, the White House communications director.

A Coelho intimate puts it another way: "Here's a guy who can explain Washington to a bunch of people who seem to value their non-Washington status as a badge of honor."

His vast network of Washington friends and former aides reaches deep into the Clinton senior staff and includes presidential scheduler Marcia Hale, deputy communications director Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and his staff chief Tom Nides, and Clinton political advisers Mandy Grunwald and Stan Greenberg.

But outside the White House, the extent of his involvement with the administration is known to few, which is fine with him.

"I don't believe in a public role," he says. "I don't need a visible role. My ego doesn't need it. I've been there. That's not where I am today."

He was recently offered a chance to join the Clinton team full time. Although Mr. Coelho wouldn't discuss the matter with a reporter, he was sounded out for the job of deputy White House chief of staff, and turned it down.

No contact with Clinton

What is perhaps most extraordinary about all this is that Mr. Coelho has no relationship with Mr. Clinton and has never met with the president. Mr. Clinton has never asked to see him, says Mr. Coelho, who adds that he keeps going to the White House because Clinton aides keep inviting him.

Described by friends as the best-organized person they know, Mr. Coelho is able to offer the White House two things it sorely lacks: Washington know-how and an iron sense of discipline.

"I've always believed strongly in staff," says Mr. Coelho, who was a congressional aide for 15 years. "I think that the best way that you help the president is you help his staff."

Becoming a Washington power broker was the last thing Mr. Coelho had in mind growing up on a dairy farm in California's Central Valley. As a student at Loyola University, a Jesuit school in Los Angeles, he was inspired by the Kennedy years to become a priest.

But his plans were shattered when he discovered, at age 22, that he had epilepsy. Church law at the time barred epileptics from becoming priests.

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