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Jewish World Review July 6, 2000 /3 Tamuz, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

Meet Steve Ricchetti, Bubba's secret weapon -- HE WAS MENTIONED as outgoing Commerce Secretary Bill Daley's successor. And Daley offered him a chance to help run Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign.

But White House Deputy Chief of Staff Steve Ricchetti is staying in his job to complete the task of passing President Clinton's priority China trade bill next month. And then he's hoping to quit and finally spend time with his four kids.

Don't bet on it. He'll be dragooned into helping Clinton in end-of-session negotiations with Congress. Even if he gets to escape the government then, there almost certainly will be work to do getting Gore elected. And if Gore is successful, he'd be crazy not to offer Ricchetti a top job in the next administration.

Only 42, Ricchetti has been at the center of some of the Clinton administration's toughest battles, including the 1993 economic plan, the 1994 health-care campaign, impeachment, Kosovo and China trade. And he's come through it with both Clinton's friends and enemies heaping praise on him.

"He's the guy they send in when no one else can get the job done," one top GOP House operative said. "He's a good guy. He's a straight-shooter. His only problem is that he's a Democrat," added a Senate GOP leadership aide.

Treasury Secretary Larry Summers told me, "He's a real pro and a pleasure to work with. He's straightforward, he's shrewd, and he understands the substance. He's done what some people think is impossible -- make the term `political operative' one of high praise."

What really seems implausible for Washington is that in a couple of weeks of asking around about Ricchetti, I couldn't find one person who would bad-mouth him.

In fact, the worst thing anyone could say is that he is maddeningly discreet in talking to the press and totally loyal to Clinton.

Customarily, if he talks to reporters at all, it's on a basis he calls "off-the-record off-the-record." And, on that basis or (rarely) for quotation, he defends his boss to the hilt.

To charges that Clinton is a finger-in-the-wind politician, for instance, Ricchetti rattles off a list: NAFTA, the Mexico bailout, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, China.

"Contrary to popular critical mythology, I'd say when the chip was down, he always made the tougher call," Ricchetti says of Clinton.

But inside the White House, fellow aides say, he is not afraid to challenge the president or differ with official policy. During the 1994 health-care fight, for instance, he urged Clinton to accept a compromise that might have saved the president's plan from total defeat.

A combination of loyalty, candor, political savvy, policy knowledge and rapport have landed Ricchetti into the center West Wing office just off the Oval Office -- the spot once occupied by Ronald Reagan's image expert, Mike Deaver, and in the Clinton years by George Stephanopoulos, Rahm Emanuel and Doug Sosnik.

"Since Rahm and Doug left," says a fellow aide, "Steve's role as the president's confidante has grown stronger. There are some people the president just trusts on policy, but with Steve he can talk policy, politics and also kick back.

"And if they are on the road or a foreign trip, he's also the one who can tell the president how his time is best used and what things Clinton wants to do are a waste of energy." Ricchetti also has become a golfing buddy of Clinton's.

It's Ricchetti's second tour at the Clinton White House. He started in 1993 as chief Senate liaison after having run the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for Sen. Chuck Robb (Va.) and then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (Maine).

Before that, he'd been chief lobbyist for Blue Cross-Blue Shield. In the 1992 cycle, Democrats were expected to lose Senate seats, but they picked up one seat in the celebrated "Year of the Woman" and raised record funds.

As Senate liaison in 1993, fellow aides joke, Ricchetti was "Kerrey's minder" -- the staffer responsible for figuring out whether Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) would give Clinton the 50th vote he needed to get his economic plan passed.

Kerrey did. "Steve has good bedside manner," Kerrey says.

After three years of helping round up votes in the Senate to break filibusters on such difficult measures as gun control, national service and telecommunications, Ricchetti managed to escape to spend time with his kids -- and run a lucrative lobbying practice -- in 1996.

But he also helped Mitchell prepare Clinton for the 1996 TV debates with GOP nominee Bob Dole. He turned down repeated offers to return to the White House in 1997.

But in a mark of loyalty, he came back in Clinton's darkest hour, Aug. 18, 1998, the day after Clinton admitted having had an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Ricchetti considered impeachment a politically inspired GOP effort to railroad Clinton from office and managed the White House team that fought it.

Since then, he's handled other tough ones -- Kosovo, the nomination of U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, last year's deal with Republicans to pay U.S. dues to the United Nations and, this year, permanent normalized trade relations with China.

What's left -- getting China trade through the Senate next month -- ought to be easy. Then Ricchetti can leave. But, he'll be back.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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