John Podesta: Legacy maker

This Washington insider’s ‘hidden hand’ has guided the environmental achievements of presidents for two decades.

That winter’s day, as she headed to the White House, Gina McCarthy undoubtedly steeled herself for a confrontation. It was 2014, and McCarthy, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was about to make her case for blocking the controversial Pebble gold mine planned for Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, home to one of the world’s most prolific salmon fisheries. But she knew that the lawyers, economists and political advisors assembled in the Roosevelt Room would make Swiss cheese out of her plan. The decision would inflame the Republican Congress, they’d say, hamper economic growth and likely provoke a lawsuit from industry. Then they’d send her on her way without an answer.


But McCarthy also knew there would be a new player in the room. Longtime Democratic operative John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, had just returned to the White House as counselor to Barack Obama. And Podesta had a reputation for bold conservation policy.

Shortly before the meeting, in fact, Podesta pulled aside Mike Boots, the acting head of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. He said: “Maybe it’s time for me to show people it’s going to be different,” Boots recalled.

And 10 minutes into the conversation, Podesta broke in. He said that he and the president endorsed McCarthy’s plan, and then laid out exactly how the announcement would roll out. McCarthy left the room, dumbfounded and elated. “Was that the Roosevelt Room that I was just in?” she asked, according to a White House staffer, who asked to remain anonymous. “I’ve only ever been handed my ass in that room.”

The Pebble Mine decision was just the start of a yearlong presidential sprint to advance conservation and climate change goals. Podesta has been there every step of the way. Think of him as the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, telling Obama’s Dorothy that she always had the power to do what she wanted; she simply had to tap her heels together three times.

As the 66-year-old Podesta embarks on yet another adventure — this time 
as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager for the 2016 election — he can list some remarkable achievements: He directly had a hand in six of 16 national monuments Obama
 has created or expanded so far by executive order, including New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Colorado’s Browns Canyon, Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains, and the country’s largest marine reserve, the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument; and steered a landmark climate deal with China to control greenhouse gas, as well as the first proposal to regulate climate emissions from U.S. coal-fired power plants.

Add in his record under Bill Clinton — the sweeping 2001 “Roadless Rule” protecting 58 million acres administered by the U.S. Forest Service, and the 19 national monuments and conservation areas, many in the West, that Clinton declared in his second term in office — and Podesta can claim a green legacy that even Teddy Roosevelt would be proud of.

“Nobody in the 21st century in U.S. government has had the influence that he has had on public lands and climate change,” says Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor of history.

Podesta rarely gets public credit, but those who do — from the presidents he has served to Cabinet members and agency heads — are quick to acknowledge his contributions.

Says Bruce Babbitt, Clinton’s Interior secretary, “The hidden hand of John Podesta is involved in every environmental advancement accomplished in the Clinton and Obama administrations.”

John Podesta shows his lighter side as he gets strapped into a helium balloon and floats up by the Washington Monument. “Of course, the president wanted to do it, too,” he says of Bill Clinton. (The Secret Service nixed that idea.)
Courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library

And yet, John Podesta rarely talks about how an inside Washington guy like him became an environmental crusader. His office at the Center for American Progress, the think tank he created in 2003, is small, and the pictures on the walls aren’t the serious images you’d expect –– photos of him standing with a president on the edge of some majestic canyon somewhere. Rather, they show him engaged in various antics at the White House — riding in the cherry-picker of a hybrid-electric utility truck over the West Wing, for example, or floating over the White House lawn in a helium balloon.

“I was standing in the Oval Office with Clinton and I could see them testing the balloon, and I said, ‘Mr. President, I’ve got to make sure this thing is going right,’ ” Podesta says, laughing. “Of course, the president wanted to do it, too, and the Secret Service said, ‘No way are we letting you go up in a balloon above the White House.’ ”

Podesta has a quirky sense of humor and is famously fascinated by science fiction — especially UFOs. One of his last tweets before leaving the White House this year was: “Biggest failure: Once again not securing the #disclosure of the UFO files.” Even people who’ve worked with him for years aren’t sure how serious he is about this particular obsession. “He wants it that way,” says Ana Unruh Cohen of the Center for American Progress, a longtime colleague.

The roots of Podesta’s passion for the environment are equally murky to many who have worked with him. Why does he care so much about this issue?

“It’s not from my upbringing,” he replies with a smile. “I spent most of my time standing on street corners.” Podesta’s parents both worked in factories when he was growing up in Chicago. More seriously, he adds, “I have two grandchildren, hopefully more. It comes a little bit from, I’m kind of a Pope Francis Catholic: I’m someone who just cares about the future.”

Podesta says he fell in love with wild places during college-break visits to the Colorado Rocky Mountains in the 1960s. Now he and his wife of 36 years, Mary, a retired lawyer, own a vacation house in Truckee, California.

“My wife and I took up cross-country skiing as geezers, and I’m a fanatic snow-shoer,” says Podesta. He has the ultra-lean frame of a long-distance runner, his clothes floating around him as if they’re still on a hanger.

Podesta’s political philosophy was shaped by his time at Knox College, a small liberal arts school in Galesburg, Illinois, where he joined Vietnam War protests and civil rights demonstrations. His first major political experience involved working on the doomed 1972 presidential campaign of liberal Democrat George McGovern. In 1976, he earned a law degree from Georgetown University. It wasn’t until 1990 that his passion for the environment really caught fire, though, when he worked on that year’s Earth Day celebration.

Podesta and his brother, lobbyist Tony Podesta, organized a Washington, D.C., event from the basement of a townhouse on Capitol Hill. It drew hundreds of thousands of people to the National Mall, including celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Denver and Olivia Newton-John.

It was a life-transforming experience,” recalls Tony Podesta.

An “Earth Day 1990” poster adorned John Podesta’s various offices at the White House, yet Podesta has trouble articulating what drives his own environmentalism. “You ask me, ‘What’s my commitment?’ ” he says. “It’s kind of like when wandering around in the Rocky Mountains — you never forget it. You become connected to it. Wallace Stegner described it as the geography of hope.”

John Podesta.
Joe McKendry

It’s not surprising that Podesta answers by quoting someone else; after all, he’s spent much of his career talking about what his bosses believe. But while words might elude him, actions don’t. His effectiveness as a White House insider, honed during the Clinton years, is unrivaled. Not surprisingly, he’s attracted critics. Some allege conflicts of interest with wealthy donors or accuse him of overusing executive powers. Others say that his policies are not green enough.

His colleagues defend his motives and point to his accomplishments, crediting his uncanny political skill. “In politics, some people are out there playing checkers. Some people are playing chess. And he’s playing three-dimensional chess,” says Carol Browner, who headed Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency and was the White House “climate czar” during Obama’s first term.

Browner vividly remembers how the playing field shifted when Podesta became Clinton’s chief of staff in 1998. Over the Fourth of July in 2000, Browner says, she went camping with her family. A park ranger came to their campsite. “He says, ‘We’re looking for Carol Browner. There are these people (on the phone — this is before cellphones were standard gear). They say it’s the White House.’ ”

It was Podesta, who had called to warn her: Congress had launched a stealth attack on her agency’s upcoming rule to regulate the amount of pollution in the nation’s waterways, known as the Total Maximum Daily Load. At the last minute, an unidentified legislator inserted a measure into an emergency spending bill to prevent the EPA from spending any money on the new rule.

Browner replied: “You have to veto this. This is outrageous.” Podesta said the president had to sign the spending bill –– it funded crucial disaster relief –– so they had to find another way. And so, while the president used his 10-day cushion to delay signing, EPA staffers worked around the clock to finish the new rule, months ahead of schedule. In the end, the rider had no impact because the rule was already in place.

Other Cabinet members benefitted from Podesta’s knowledge and influence. And Podesta learned as well. Interior Secretary Babbitt worked with him to create a series of new national monuments, mostly on underappreciated Bureau of Land Management holdings in the West. Wielding the 1906 Antiquities Act to get around Congress, Clinton first designated the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah months before the 1996 election. The move provoked loud protests from locals and their elected officials, who denounced it as a federal land grab and complained they were never consulted.

That experience taught Babbitt to use the Antiquities Act more carefully. “Everybody from the administration is still quite proud of having designated Escalante,” Podesta says. But “Secretary Babbitt came away from that saying, we shouldn’t spring this on people. We should spend more time, listen more thoughtfully.”

Podesta never forgot. In early 2014, when a group of Western senators, frustrated by the lack of progress in preserving public lands, invited Podesta to Capitol Hill, he first asked if they had public support for their proposal. New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich cited a broad coalition of local residents, who had spent decades trying to get Congress to protect a rough-and-tumble chunk of mountains, canyons and grasslands outside Las Cruces as a wilderness area. Would the president consider creating a national monument there now?

Some Cabinet members hesitated, unwilling to promote new monuments that were guaranteed to anger the powerful Republicans who controlled the federal budget.

“The secretaries knew they were in for it with their congressional overseers,” says Podesta, “and I think they weren’t certain about whether the president would back them up. I tried to reassure them that indeed he would.”

Within a few months, President Obama had designated the half-million-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Sen. Heinrich gives Podesta credit for getting “the wheels turning within the White House” to make it happen. “He personally gets these issues and he understands the West and he understands the importance of lands issues,” Heinrich says.

Podesta also understands how public lands can be leveraged to benefit his boss and political party. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, he supported Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck’s proposal to permanently protect the remaining roadless areas on national forests from logging, mining, drilling and other development. He saw it as another piece of Clinton’s environmental legacy. Dombeck, who had previously had little influence in the White House, suddenly found himself attending meetings in the West Wing, with Clinton himself popping in to check on progress.

John Podesta with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and President Bill Clinton at a Cabinet meeting at the White House in 2000.
Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images

John Podesta with Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing, China, in 2013 at a meeting that included discussions on global energy and environment.
Jim Bourg/AP Photo

John Podesta with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell last year.
Michael O’Connell/Federal News Radio

Podesta was deeply interested in the details, Dombeck recalls, and drove the decision to add forest lands excluded from the original proposal, including the Tongass in Alaska, the Black Hills in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, and the Pacific Northwest forests where the northern spotted owl lives. The plan topped out at 58.5 million acres, more than a quarter of all the national forest lands. Podesta maneuvered the proposal through a gantlet of other agencies and the White House Office of Management and Budget in the weeks before George W. Bush moved into the White House. It was signed just a week before Clinton left office.

“We’d have never gotten it done without him,” says Dombeck.

How does Podesta get such controversial conservation initiatives past the finish line? “It’s just good management,” he says. “If you want to get something done, you pay attention to it.”

Colleagues say Podesta’s generally an affable and supportive manager. But as the point man for the many scandals that plagued the Clinton White House, he got a reputation for having an evil twin known as “Skippy,” who could be harsh and unusually direct. “I’ve had some Skippy sightings, (but) not in a while,” says David Hayes, who was deputy secretary of the Interior Department for both Clinton and Obama. By 2007, when Daniel Weiss joined the Center for American Progress, he says Skippy “was more legend than fact.” That’s not to say Podesta’s not still very exacting. “He’s very committed to his friends,” Carol Browner says. But “it doesn’t mean he’s not a hard-ass sometimes. He calls it as he sees it.”     

When the Republicans took over the White House in 2001, Podesta and some colleagues decided to create a progressive think tank that would be tough enough to compete with those on the political right. They called it the Center for American Progress, and it grew into a revolving-door powerhouse that harnessed the intellectual and political capital of the academic, NGO, philanthropic and government communities, often shuttling people in and out of key positions in all these realms. In 2012, the group had a budget  of more than $39 million, according to its IRS 990, and today, it boasts a staff of 314 policy wonks, professors and writers.

“Democrats and progressives did not have an institution dedicated to thinking up policies and finding a way to move them into the public sphere,” says Ana Unruh Cohen, who joined the think tank in 2004 as its first director of environmental policy. “We called it a think-and-do tank. We didn’t want to write just one more report that would be sitting on the shelf.”

Perhaps the center’s most urgent environmental goal was developing climate policies and building political and public support for them. The entire environmental movement had watched as Al Gore, heeding his advisors, retreated from his fierce concern about climate change during his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2000. The think tank believed that, with more groundwork, climate policy could become a winning political issue.

Part of the groundwork included working with Republicans and business leaders. In 2005, Podesta teamed up with think tanks in Great Britain and Australia to create the International Climate Change Task Force. He believed the major economies could work together to combat runaway climate change. Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who has since retired from the Senate, led the task force with a British member of parliament, and by the end of 2007, President George W. Bush had adopted a similar, though watered-down, approach, launching a voluntary effort by major economies to slow and stop the growth of greenhouse gases. He also asked Congress to tighten fuel economy standards for cars.

Podesta’s Center for American Progress lobbied Congress to do the same, commissioning a poll that showed public support for boosting fuel economy. Daniel Weiss, who worked for the center at the time, says the poll helped persuade House Democrats to vote for the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which required automakers to raise fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by the model year 2020. President Bush signed the bill into law.

As the 2008 election approached, Podesta continued to think and act like the chief of staff of a Democratic White House in waiting. With Todd Stern, his think-tank colleague, he released a clean energy blueprint for the next administration. Although Podesta supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, Obama embraced clean energy as a centerpiece of his campaign, and long before it was clear whether he would win, he asked Podesta to lead his transition team. Despite a multitude of competing priorities — including selecting a Cabinet and White House staff — Podesta continued to press conservation measures. In TV appearances, he urged the cancellation of 77 oil and gas leases near Canyonlands and Arches national parks in Utah, an idea Interior Secretary Ken Salazar eventually implemented. He also readied an economic recovery bill that invested $90 billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency, including programs like “cash for clunkers,” which paid people to trade in old gas-guzzlers. Many of the initiatives came straight from the Center for American Progress.

Podesta returned to his think tank, but many of his allies remained in the administration. Stern became a special envoy for climate change at the State Department. Former senior fellow Denis McDonough rose through the White House inner circle to become chief of staff in 2013. Jennifer Palmieri went from president of the center’s political arm to assistant to the president and White House communications director. She’s now communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Christina Goldfuss moved from public-lands director at the Center for American Progress to deputy director of the National Park Service. Today, she’s acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The list goes on.

The think tank’s revolving door positioned Podesta and his allies to promote action on climate change early in the Obama administration. Ana Unruh Cohen left the center and re-joined the staff of Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., where she helped draft sweeping legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Democratic majority in both chambers offered a rare window in which to push for the bill, which included a market-based strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, known as cap and trade.

The climate bill passed the House in 2009, but Senate Republicans used the recession to successfully paint the bill as a jobs killer, and even some Democrats helped kill it. It was a major defeat for Obama and Podesta, and, for a while, Obama retreated on the environment.


John Podesta poses with Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, center, and Hillary Clinton at a CAP event in 2013.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

But there’s nothing like a second term facing a Congress fully in the hands of the opposing party to change a president’s perspective.

“With an obstructionist Congress, you … need to think about, ‘How do I use all the authority of the bully pulpit, public-private partnerships, executive authority, regulatory authority to try to make the country a better place?’ ” Podesta says.

Although not officially part of the White House, Podesta was never far away, visiting 139 times between 2009 and the end of 2013, according to the White House visitor log. Podesta wasn’t always a cheerleader; he urged the White House to do more on income inequality, clean energy and climate, and he joined Babbitt in criticizing the Obama administration for drilling more public land than it had protected.

With Podesta’s input from the sidelines, Obama began using the Antiquities Act to designate monuments. The president issued executive orders to get agencies to consider climate change impacts and announced regulations to curb greenhouse gases. After he announced his Climate Action Plan, Obama brought Podesta back formally as a senior advisor to implement it, “both in substance and communication,” Boots says.

Podesta immediately saw a chance to make a splash with the National Climate Assessment, due out in May 2014. He knew a data-filled 827-page climate report would make most people’s eyes glaze over, so he found a way to jazz it up by championing a colleague’s idea to bring meteorologists to the White House lawn, and persuaded the president to do one-on-one interviews with national and local TV weather forecasters, says Boots. “These are people who have huge audiences every morning, who are trusted, who could talk about changes.”

Successful events like this helped embolden Obama, but failed to impress everyone in the environmental community. The administration’s initial reluctance to aggressively regulate hydraulic fracturing and greenhouse gas emissions from the natural gas industry angered on-the-ground activists. At a White House conference table in March 2014, a reporter’s question about environmentalists’ call for a ban on exports of natural gas provoked a sharp response. Opposing all fossil fuels, Podesta snapped, is a “completely impractical way of moving towards a clean energy future.”

John Podesta.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Liberal pundits and mainstream journalists have occasionally questioned Podesta about his think tank’s financial and policy ties to its energy, defense and pharmaceutical company funders. But his most aggressive critics are on the right. Following Podesta’s return to the White House, right-wing bloggers and reporters honed in on one of the center’s board members and major donors, Hansjörg Wyss, a billionaire businessman who, for two decades, has financed efforts to conserve public lands. Podesta’s financial White House disclosure showed he collected $87,000 in 2013, for consulting for the HJW Foundation, a Wyss philanthropy.  The conservative Daily Caller website accused Podesta of violating White House ethics rules for taking funds from Wyss and then pushing Obama’s proposal to expand the area off-limits to oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a priority for the Wyss Foundation.

Nothing ever came of the accusations. A spokesperson for Podesta said:  “While Mr. Wyss and Mr. Podesta share a passion for conserving America’s most precious landscapes, his consulting work involved a separate philanthropy focused on social justice issues. He observed all applicable rules, and there was no conflict.”

Together, HJW and Wyss Foundation donated more than $5 million to the Center for American Progress between 2011 and 2013, according to a spokesman for the Wyss Foundation. The foundations merged in 2014. (High Country News has received donations from the Wyss Foundation, including funding for news coverage from Washington, D.C.)

Tony Podesta brushes off the criticism. “He agrees with those views, is an effective advocate, and they (philanthropic donors) fund his research on issues they care about,” he says. “That’s how the nonprofit sector works; that’s how think tanks work.” Then, referring to another, more famous pair of brothers, the fossil fuel industry billionaires who fund GOP campaigns, he adds: “Did you expect the Koch brothers would fund John to stop drilling” in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

President Barack Obama and White House counselor John Podesta walk near the Washington Monument last May. Podesta is behind many second-term conservation achievements for both Obama and Bill Clinton.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP Photo

Podesta’s most important contribution during his year in the White House may have been his role in negotiating a climate agreement between the United States and China — the world’s two greatest emitters of greenhouse gases. Drawing on long-term relationships with Chinese leaders and experts, Podesta entered negotiations with a well-conceived plan. One key to getting China to agree to a robust pledge, he says, was showing that the U.S. was taking serious action on its own: The EPA’s proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, along with policies to reduce climate pollution from cars and expand solar and wind power, demonstrated that “we were doing a lot,” he says.

Podesta hopes the deal will lead to a new international climate agreement, and a political shift in Congress. “I think it had the ancillary effect of taking off the table the argument that we shouldn’t do anything because the Chinese aren’t doing anything, when the Chinese are in fact doing quite a lot to transform their energy system,” he says.

That’s not to say that Podesta expects Republican climate skeptics to concede defeat. In fact, he seems to hope climate change will be a central issue in the 2016 election, which could pit a Republican climate denier against Hillary Clinton, with Podesta in her corner. Many of his tweets since he officially became Clinton’s campaign chairman have pressed the issue: He praises California’s aggressive new climate goals, warns of alarming new science on melting Antarctic ice, posts a video of President Obama losing his normal cool at climate deniers during a skit at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and shares a photo showing a polar bear cub stretching to nuzzle its mother in Alaska, where the animals are threatened by melting sea ice.

One tweet hints at how Podesta sees the battle possibly shaping up. He links to a Guardian story that quotes GOP candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas comparing people who believe in global warming to “the flat-Earthers,” even as a recent poll shows that 60 percent of Republicans believe the government should limit greenhouse gases. “If the majority of Rs support climate action,” he wonders, “when will their leaders accept the science?”

Back in his office, Podesta can’t hide his eagerness for the fight ahead: “Politics is about friction. When people agree more than they disagree, it doesn’t rise to the top. This time it could be massive.”

Elizabeth Shogren, formerly of the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio, is now the High Country News Washington, DC, correspondent.  


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