Carol Felsenthal
On politics

How the Podesta Brothers Rose From the 39th Ward to the White House

Powerbroker Tony Podesta on his career and his brother, Obama’s incoming senior counselor—charged with “rescuing” POTUS’s second term.

Tony Podesta Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who follows politics will recognize the name Podesta, as in Tony, 70, a behind-the scenes powerbroker and lobbyist, and his younger brother, John, 64, founder of the left-leaning research organization the Center for American Progress, and Bill Clinton’s last chief of staff. Next month, John becomes White House senior counselor to President Obama, charged, according to many news accounts, with “rescuing” Obama’s presidency—as he rescued Bill Clinton’s in the wake of Lewinsky and impeachment. Tony scoffs at the notion that a “talented politician” like Obama needs recuing, but he doesn’t underestimate the hard work that awaits John.

I talked to Tony from his room at a spa in Mexico’s Baja California where he’s relaxing until after Christmas. (He’s separated form his wife and in the process of getting a divorce.) The brothers, who grew up on Chicago’s northwest side, have spent most of their adult lives in D.C. Five years after their father’s death in 1980, they moved their mother to Washington where she died in 2007, not living long enough to see Barack Obama, her favorite in the ’08 Democratic primaries, win the party’s nomination. Her sons, long-time close friends of the Clintons, both supported Hillary.

Where did you grow up in Chicago?

In the 39th Ward, around Lawrence and Foster/Pulaski and Cicero, at 4932 Kentucky Avenue. If you haven’t heard of the street it’s because runs only two blocks. We grew up in a two-flat; we lived on one floor and my mother’s sister, husband, and my cousins lived on the other.  Our alderman was Anthony C. Laurino. [His daughter, Margaret, succeeded him in 1994 and remains the alderman.]

Did you go to public school?

Yes, John M. Palmer School, named after a man who became governor of Illinois. [Also U.S. Senator.] Both my brother and I then went to Lane Tech.

Were your parents college graduates?

No, my father went to Lane Tech when it was located closer to the Loop. He didn’t finish.  My father’s family lived on Illinois Street on the Near North Side before it was chic. He grew up in a tenement and later worked in a factory as a machine operator for a company called Embossagraph that made display advertising signs.

Both my parents were born in Chicago; their parents were immigrants; my father’s from Italy and my mother’s from Greece. [Mary Podesta’s maiden name was Kokoris.]

Where did you go to college?

I graduated from UIC.  When I started, the campus was at Navy Pier,  but by the time I graduated it was in its current location, then known as the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. [John Podesta went to Knox College.] It was the only place I applied to. It was so cheap. I lived at home and it cost $240 a year, and included tuition, fees and health insurance.

As you were growing up, did you have any political connections?

Sort of. I cut the ribbon at the opening of the new campus with Governor Kerner and Mayor [Rihcard J] Daley. It was a big deal; a kid from the 39th ward standing there with a governor and mayor.

Was your family political?

My father was never interested in politics at all; he liked sports. My mother was more interested. She was an Election Day worker.  On Saturday nights, my mother, brother and I watched Kup’s Show, and we also watched the Sunday morning shows.  I didn’t get involved in politics until college. In 1964 I was President of the Young Democrats and went to the convention in Atlantic City for LBJ. In 1968 I was in graduate school [in political science] at MIT. I went to New Hampshire for Eugene McCarthy…. At the ’68 convention in Chicago, I was sort of running the scheduling for McCarthy. The Chicago police raided us. Broke a nightstick over the head of one of my compatriots. The next morning I accompanied McCarthy to Grant Park….

My brother was still in college. I think he spent the summer working for McCarthy…. In 1970 I worked for Joe Duffey who was running for the Senate in Connecticut. I brought Bill Clinton in as Duffey’s  3rd District congressional coordinator. My brother was 2nd District coordinator.

Did you end up getting your PhD at MIT?

I finished the coursework; then I was reclassified as 1A. Graduate school deferments were eliminated. I ended up becoming a college professor at Barat College in Lake Forest, which gave me an education deferment. For two years I was director of admissions and taught political science. I never finished at MIT.

The New York Times has reported that you’re going to be working to bring the Obama library to your alma mater, UIC.  The smart money and clout seems to be lining up to bring it to the University of Chicago.

I  have supported UIC, so they called me and put me on a committee to help make the argument that it would be appropriate for the Obama library to go to a public institution. I won’t read the tealeaves.  I think either campus would be a fine home.

I know you are a friend of our current mayor.  Do you think he has a higher-than-mayor office in mind?

I’ve known Rahm since he was working at the DCCC. He is an extraordinary politician.  I don’t know what his plans are, but he’s been doing a bang-up job. He’ll certainly run for something else. He’s a real talent. I knew in 1969 that Bill Clinton was going to be successful. He’s charismatic; he’s great with people; he was a real talent from day one.   Rahm is like Clinton more than other governors or mayors are like Clinton. Both of them electrify a room, they articulate a vision and are great messengers of that vision. I think Rahm has a bright future. He’s still young and has so much to offer the country.

Politico’s  Glenn Thrush says that your brother can have a “short fuse;” that he has “a sulfuric evil twin [named Skippy] so fearsome that even the brash Rahm Emanuel scrambled for cover.”

I think that John has high standards. And I think that the people who worked for him in the White House and people who worked for him at CAP love and respect him. He has moments when people disappoint. He sometimes can make that clear.

Any hard feelings among Obamaites that you and John supported Hillary in ’08?

I was never negative about Obama. I’ve known Hillary for such a long time and have enormous respect for her. I don’t know if she’ll decide to run, but if she does, I’ll support her. As for John, the President asked him to—and John agreed to—run Obama’s transition in 2008, so no hard feelings there.

What about Bill Daley?

I knew Bill well from politics. I knew him when he was secretary of commerce, chief of staff, and I was supporting his brief effort to become governor.

Why did he drop out?

I think that often people say, “I want to do this. I want to do this,” and then when they actually do it, they don’t really like it, and that’s what happened in Bill’s case.

I think he did a good job as COS. He stabilized the situation, had good relations with the outside community, but he was clearly an outsider in Obamaland, which made it a difficult assignment. Lots of the others had signed up with Obama in 2006.

Reporters have made much of your brother’s Chicago roots in Obama’s request for him to help out in the White House. Is there really something about his Chicago upbringing that makes him attractive to Obama?

I think Chicago is a sort of polyglot of different industries and ethnicities. It’s a lively place. I think you learn something from living in the middle of the great stew of Chicago…. Still John’s experience at CAP and the White House are more important  than where he grew up….

Yet Chicagoans are different from people who grew up in Boston or New York. I think that sort of dimension is part of what John brings to the job. Not that it’s a secret sauce and he wouldn’t be good without it. Chicago is more like Brooklyn than Manhattan. I do think Chicagoans tend to be more direct. And they pay attention to politics.

Chicago and Boston are two of the most political cities in country. That said, I don’t think it’s John’s secret weapon; that he and the president exchange Chicago slang, or knowing glances.

Are there other people from Chicago who went on to run for office whom you knew when you lived here, went to school here?

I went to college with Denny Hastert, Carol Moseley Braun, and Steve Schiff, who became a Republican congressman from Albuquerque, New Mexico. We were all in student government at the U of I. In 1965, Hastert and I were part of a two-month student delegation to Japan. We traveled around the country, taught at an English camp for two weeks, met with local YMCA leaders. We were there for the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. 

Hastert was not like Clinton or Rahm. I did not see the seed of political power. We’re still friends. I knew him when he was Speaker. His personality has not changed at all from 1965 to 2013. He’s a decent, wonderful guy. People like and respect him. I was surprised to see him elected to Congress, but, once there, I was not surprised to see him become Speaker of the House.

Why did Moseley Braun’s career, which seemed so promising, come to such a disappointing end?  Did you lend her any support when she ran for mayor of Chicago?

I was very involved in both her senate campaigns; second one at behest of Hillary Clinton. I was not involved in the mayoral race.  

How did you and John end up in Washington?

We both worked for the McGovern campaign in ’72, and in ’73 we decided we should become lawyers. We both applied to law school at Georgetown, carpooled everyday. We were both editors of the law review. I was articles editor; he was notes editor. We graduated in 1976. From there, we both went to the U.S. Attorney’s office in DC.

Your brother has said that he will stay in the White House job for one year.  Do you think he will stick with that pledge?

Yes. He stayed one time to turn off lights [for Clinton]; won’t do it twice.

Obama asked your brother to come to the White House in 2009 and again in 2011. Why didn’t he go then, and why now?

He was in the middle of a critical time for CAP. Now he’s had a transition, Neera Tanden, to take his place as president, so John could now be uprooted form the institution he created.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll from earlier this week, Obama has an approval rating of 43 percent; 9 points below where he was a year ago. Can your brother, whom Politico’s Glenn Thrush calls “the closest thing Washington has to a turnaround specialist for wayward Democratic commanders in chief,” help the President turn things around? 

Two months ago Republicans had closed the government and were about to lose the House. These are just snapshots. The Democrats were 10 points ahead [of Republicans]; now they’re two points down. The notion that Obama had fallen off a cliff is no more true than that Republicans had fallen off a cliff two months ago. Polls bounce around.

You’re a registered lobbyist? 

Yes. John and I cofounded a lobbying and PR firm called the Podesta Group. I’ve stayed with it. John [also, for some years pre-2006, a registered lobbyist] was there from 1987 to 1993 when he went to work for Clinton. Then he was briefly out of the Clinton White House and did some work for us.  But not full time since 1993. I’ve never worked inside government.  I’ve been in and out of the White House to help Democrats.

I’ve read that since 2009 your brother has visited the White House at least 130 times to provide informal advice. How about you?

Not that much.

In the double digits?

Probably.

What’s the relationship like between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton?

I don’t know.  Clinton [has a tendency to] give advice publicly.  But he gave a speech at the convention, campaigned hard for democrats in the last election. He is a major asset for us.  

Can’t let you go without asking you about the controversy that erupted on Wednesday when Glenn Thrush published an old (earlier in the fall; before Podesta’s White House appointment) comment from your brother in which he compared the Republican-controlled House to “a cult worthy of Jonestown…”  [Podesta is referring to the James Jones-led cult in which more than 900 of his followers died from cyanide poisoning in Guyana.]  I know he apologized over Twitter—“… my snark got in front of my judgment…” Does he need to do more ?

Great line. Don’t think [that the] Tea Party will do a lot with him anyway.

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