Before victory, Maggie Williams hire showed Clinton in for keeps

The media had declared Hillary Clinton's campaign all but dead, but even before her surprising finish Tuesday night, a crucial staff change showed she was already looking beyond New Hampshire.


Alex Koppelman
January 9, 2008 9:10AM (UTC)

Leading up to the New Hampshire primary, much of the media had been rushing to pronounce Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign dead -- Matt Drudge even reported that "Clinton is preparing for a tough decision: Does she get out of the race? And when?!" She defied conventional wisdom, though, pulling out a win in N.H. Tuesday night. But earlier Tuesday night, when the victor was still unknown, all indications were that the Clinton campaign intended to press forward even if they came in second behind Barack Obama. Especially telling was the campaign's addition of longtime Clinton loyalist Maggie Williams, which Salon was first to confirm. Williams' hiring also seems an indication that as the campaign continues Clinton may be turning to the people who've been with her since the beginning.

Williams and Clinton go back even before Bill Clinton's first term as president; they met at the Children's Defense Fund, where Williams was communications director while Hillary Clinton served on the board. Williams served as Hillary Clinton's communications director for Bill Clinton's first presidential run, and after his victory, Williams became Hillary Clinton's chief of staff and an assistant to the president. She was the highest ranking African-American woman in the White House in history.

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But Williams suffered for the Clintons too. One Secret Service agent alleged that on the night of Vince Foster's suicide, he saw Williams leaving Foster's office with a box of files. Williams denied this, and passed two polygraph tests. She did say, though, that two days after Foster's death, she took some of the Clinton's personal files from his office. It was the start of what would become years that Williams would spend dealing with the Clinton scandals, with personal consequences.

Between the Foster investigation, the Whitewater investigation and campaign finance scandals, Williams racked up six figures worth of legal fees. And yet the loyalty between Williams and the Clintons remained strong, and ran both ways. At Senate Whitewater hearings, Williams began to cry when she was asked how much time she had spent preparing for her testimony. It was a moment Joe Klein -- then of Newsweek -- documented as evidence of what he called the Clintons' "casual insensitivity." "How could the First Lady allow her chief of staff to spend $ 140,000 on legal fees?" Klein asked. "Why hasn't she come forward and said, 'Stop torturing my staff. This isn't about them. I'll testify.'" This, apparently, was too much for Clinton, according to Bob Woodward. In his book "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," Woodward wrote that after reading the Klein column, Clinton called a White House attorney, dismayed at what was happening and ready to testify to spare Williams and those who might follow her any more pain. "It's killing me to let this happen," Woodward reports Clinton said in that call. Told that she simply could not testify, Clinton was beside herself. Woodward writes, "'That is not who I am!' Hillary said, crying, pleading. 'I take care of people.'"

Still, both Williams and the Clintons ultimately weathered the scandals, and remained close. Williams left the White House in 1997 and moved to Paris. After she returned to the U.S, she went back to work for a Clinton. This time, though, she served Bill Clinton, who was by then out of office, as chief of staff at his Clinton Foundation. She now runs her own consulting firm from her home. Williams had been advising the campaign on an informal basis, though she had opted before now not to become directly involved. She will now serve as a top-level volunteer, coordinating operations.

Melanne Verveer, who served as Hillary Clinton's chief of staff after Williams, told Salon that Williams is "a very strategic thinker, she is extremely well organized and she's an expert in communications, and she's obviously very, very close to Senator Clinton. ... She's got great professional expertise, but she's also a great person." Verveer also noted that Williams has "also been an expert in the advocacy community, she understands issues, she understands what advocacy requires." Asked afterwards what she thought Williams might bring to the campaign, Verveer declined to speculate.

A spokesman for Hillary Clinton said he did not yet have any comment when Salon spoke to him Tuesday night.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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