Strategist learned loyalty during scandal

At one of the worst moments of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and one of the lowest points in his six years as a trusted adviser, Chris Jennings was surprised to find his loyalty more justified than ever.

Jennings had just made a mistake. In the days following Clinton’s televised confession that he had been involved in an extra-marital affair with former intern Monica Lewinsky, Jennings opened up to a New York Times reporter about his feeling that the scandal was making it impossible for the administration to govern effectively.

Jennings didn’t think much of the conversation until a few days later, when he took a telephone call from an incensed Erskine Bowles, then the White House chief of staff.

In a front-page story that appeared in the Times on Aug. 24, 1998, Jennings was quoted as saying, among other things, “We are frustrated that this has distracted from our ability to push his agenda” and “We are disappointed in him for contributing to his problems in this area.”

“Disappointed in the president” was not exactly a sentiment Bowles wanted the White House staff to be relaying to the press. Jennings insists he was misunderstood by the Times reporter, that he never criticized the president directly.

Bowles was unmoved. “Erskine was understandably furious and I was offering to resign, and it was devastating to me,” Jennings says in the Northwest D.C. office of Jennings Policy Strategies, which is adorned with Clinton memorabilia.

Making matters worse, the bombshell fell while Jennings and his family were on a rare vacation to Duck, N.C. The next day, Hurricane Bonnie forced them to evacuate and embark on an excruciating 12-hour trek back to Washington. “My life is over,” he remembers thinking.

Jennings felt horribly guilty for adding to the president’s considerable woes. Not knowing what else to do, he penned notes of apology to Bowles and to the president.

What happened next redefined his view of his days at the White House and strengthened his loyalty to Clinton.

The president apologized to him.

“A week later, I get a note from President Clinton, and he said, you know, I’ve been misquoted a time or two in my life. And he said that it’s not you who owe me the apology, it’s I who owe you an apology,” Jennings says.

“He was in the middle of so many things going on and that he would take the time to do that … it meant that I was going to have to stay there the rest of my, you know, life,” Jennings says.

In a sense, he has. He worked in the Clinton White House for all eight years and continues to advise Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

“If healthcare is the Middle East of domestic policy, that qualifies him as one of the longest-suffering peacemakers in history,” says Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton’s top domestic policy adviser.

Jennings remains a Clintonite and says he plans to help Sen. Clinton’s presidential campaign. “I first and foremost believe in loyalty and remembering who you are and where you came from. I would not be here without Sen. Clinton,” he says.

While an aide to then-Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), Jennings first joined up with the Clinton team when the then-Arkansas governor found himself in need of a healthcare reform plan to compete with the one offered by then-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), one of Clinton’s adversaries in the New Hampshire primary.

In one long night, Jennings and Reed concocted the framework of the healthcare platform the Clintons carried into the White House.

A 10-year veteran of Capitol Hill, Jennings helped the then-first lady bone up on healthcare and the folkways of Congress in preparation for the White House’s ambitious push for national healthcare reform.

The aftershocks still ripple from this debate, which ended in failure for the White House. Jennings has his scars but also learned a lot from the experience.

He describes it in grandiose terms.

“Obviously, a very, very, extraordinarily uplifting and concurrently painful experience beyond anything any human being can completely comprehend without having gone through it,” Jennings says. When it was over, “It was just hard for me to accept that we would just do nothing.”

In the heat of the debate, then-White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta says that Jennings’s political savvy served as an invaluable counterbalance to the academic sensibilities of Ira Magaziner, the guru behind the Clintons’ plan. “Every time I would get complaints from the Hill, I wouldn’t go to Ira. I would go to Chris,” Panetta says.

Although the administration never again tried to remake the entire healthcare system, Jennings is proud of achievements such as the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Federation of American Hospitals President Chip Kahn, who was a health-insurance lobbyist and one of the Clinton administration’s most formidable antagonists during the healthcare reform debate, said, “He’s always been a smart straight-shooter and always been someone you can work with.”

Since leaving the White House, Jennings has built a business advising clients, policymakers and candidates alike on the policy and politics of healthcare.

Jennings says that his varied experiences provide him with an unusual perspective on the process of translating ideas into legislation.

“One of my strengths, maybe, is to really focus on the intersection between policy, personality and politics,” he says.

“In the political world, I’m viewed as a policy wonk,” he says. “In the policy world, I think I’m viewed as a … translator of politics to them.”

Jennings relishes acting as a “political translator” for both sides and speaks their respective languages fluently.

“No Democrat trying to figure out how to solve the country’s healthcare problems goes anywhere without first asking Chris Jennings for advice,” Reed says.

Republicans, too, can benefit from his counsel, according to Mark McClellan, George W. Bush’s former head of Medicare and Medicaid. “His perspective is really valuable,” said McClellan, who also worked in the Treasury Department during the Clinton administration.

Jennings says you need to respect that everyone has a part to play — something he thinks a lot of people forget.

“It is actually an empowering notion to know how small you are in that world because it leads you to conclude that you have to reach out to get something done,” he says.

Jennings believes that advisers should live in the background. “It’s not about the credit,” he says, citing President Reagan’s edict.

“Notwithstanding [that] in Washington, everybody wants the credit, it should not be about people like me. It should be about the policymakers, the elected policymakers,” Jennings says.

Jennings also has little time for operatives who don’t seem to care about advancing a positive agenda. “What I have problems with are the people who specialize in just killing things,” he says.

He credits the Clintons, Pryor and his first boss in Washington, then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), with instilling those values in him. “I am who I am largely because of them,” he says.

To younger people working in Washington, Jennings offers this advice: “Don’t just take the paycheck and say, ‘I’m happy to be in this job.’ You know — do something with it. It’s a rare, rare opportunity.”