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Washington’s Rotten Core
The Podestas’ breakup offers a window onto a political culture of pettiness and greed.

Tony and Heather Podesta

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Matthew Continetti

‘I see lobbying,” Tony Podesta has said, “as getting information in the hands of people who are making decisions so they can make more informed decisions.” Last week the information Tony Podesta was giving was the divorce complaint he had filed in D.C. Court against his wife, Heather. The hands receiving that information belonged to a gossip columnist for the Washington Post, who made the “informed decision” to report on it. Later in the day Heather, who is also a lobbyist, gave the Post the text of her counter-suit. It published a follow-up.

The documents, which you can read below, did not become available to the rest of us until yesterday. They tell stories not only of a May–December romance gone sour but of how obscene wealth can be amassed through rent-seeking and influence-peddling in Washington, D.C., and of the hoary means by which the princelings of the capital and their consorts maintain and grow that wealth. They tell stories not only of an ugly divorce but of the power of lobbying, of how one family maneuvered to the center of the nation’s dominant political party, of the transactional relationships, gargantuan self-regard, and empty posturing that insulate, asbestos-like, the D.C. bubble.

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That the broken couple now uses the tools of their trade — the phone call to a friend, the selective leaking of documents, the hiring of attorneys, the launch of a public-relations campaign — against one another is more than ironic. It is fitting. Tony and Heather Podesta reached the pinnacle of wealth and influence in Barack Obama’s Washington. Now they, like he, are in eclipse.

The stories begin in the fall of 2001. She was in her early thirties, working at a trade association, and on the rebound. Her second marriage had just ended. A friend, Dorothy Robyn, a Democratic policy wonk, suggested she meet Tony Podesta. Tony was decades older than she and had been married once before, but he was young at heart. He took her to the opera for their first date. On the way, the story goes, they stopped by one of his homes to pick up a car. She noticed his art collection. “I don’t know why it is,” Tony said, “but I have artworks where the women have no heads.” The next day she sent him a note. It was signed, “Woman with a head.”

The woman with a head was Heather Miller, and soon she and Tony were in love. They moved in together. When they married, in April of 2003, Tony was 59, and Heather was 33. Nancy Pelosi witnessed their vows, as did Patrick Leahy, and Ed Markey, and Bill Richardson, and countless other Democratic bigwigs. According to the Post, which has chronicled the ups and downs of the Podestas’ relationships and careers, the noted D.C. chefs and restaurateurs Roberto Donna and Kaz Okuchi “personally cooked for the guests.” This was no ordinary wedding.

And Tony Podesta was no ordinary man. A longtime Democratic aide, a counselor to Teddy Kennedy, Tony had been one of the capital’s most powerful lobbyists for some time. As his lawyers would later put it, “‘Podesta’ was a widely recognized and well-respected name in the lobbying industry at the time of the marriage.” The lobbying firm he had established in 1987 was powerfully connected. His younger brother, John, was President Clinton’s chief of staff. Tony Podesta owned art and wine and real estate in Italy, in Australia, in northern Virginia, and in D.C. He was a major Democratic donor, a force to be reckoned with, and a cut-up, a character who wore loud neckties and red Prada shoes. “The Pope wears Prada,” he is known to say, “and so do I.”

Heather changed her name — something she had not done in her previous marriages — to Heather Miller Podesta. She emulated her spouse, developing, in the words of the Post, “a penchant for flamboyantly patterned dresses.” She joined the company, began lobbying. She picked up Tony’s art habit, and together they amassed a collection of more than 1,300 pieces. She set to work, renovating their six-bedroom, six-and-a-half bathroom home in Northwest D.C. off Massachusetts Avenue, overlooking the Rock Creek Parkway.

She wanted, her lawyers would say later, “to create a uniquely beautiful architectural space for the dual purposes of having a wonderful home in which to live and promote their shared interests, both professional and personal.” The renovation took three years and cost millions of dollars. The “marital residence,” where they promoted their shared interests in holding parties and fundraisers for Democratic politicians, and housed immense wine and art collections, is estimated to be worth some $5.6 million. Concerned about income inequality? The Podestas are the 1 Percent.

They would visit their apartment in Venice, Italy, up to a dozen times a year, hosting Janet Napolitano, entertaining passersby such as Representatives Shelley Berkley and Eliot Engel, “even,” the Post once breathlessly intoned, “Teddy Kennedy.” They’d open their homes to tours so people could enjoy the art, could witness the spectacle of their wealth. One story they liked to tell took place in 2004, when the guests at their northern-Virginia home, near Lake Barcroft, walked into a bedroom festooned with the works of Katy Grannan, “a photographer known for documentary-style pictures of naked teenagers in their parents’ suburban homes.” The guests were shocked. But oh, how Tony and Heather laughed.

In 2007 Podesta Matoon became the Podesta Group. Heather formed Heather Podesta + Partners, establishing two prongs of the Podesta-family empire. The third prong was the Center for American Progress, founded in 2003 by John Podesta, who would oversee President Obama’s transition team in 2009 and join the Obama administration as a senior adviser in 2014. The Podestas had become the most important non-elected family in the Democratic party.



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