One of the interesting sidelights of Obama’s staff selection process is not just the echoes of the Clinton administration — you’d expect Obama would draw from people who served in a Democratic administration as recently as eight years ago — but the roles some of the new Obama officials played in the Lewinsky scandal. Transition chief John Podesta, of course, was Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff during the worst of it. Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, was there for most of 1998. Greg Craig, the incoming White House counsel, defended Clinton in the Senate. But even some of the non-household names had parts to play. Recently, for example, Obama announced that a woman named Mona Sutphen would be White House deputy chief of staff.
The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite place it. Turns out I remembered her from a long story I did in 1998 about former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson’s role in the scandal. (Richardson is also up for some sort of job in the Obama administration, perhaps even secretary of state.) Based on grand jury testimony that had just been released, the article told the story of Richardson’s decision, after a nudge from Podesta, to offer Lewinsky a job without checking her references and later, when Lewinsky couldn’t make up her mind whether to take the job, to hold it open for her for quite a long time. (Podesta had told Richardson that Lewinsky was a friend of White House secretary Betty Currie and wanted to move to New York.)
Mona Sutphen’s role in the story was that she was a top aide to Richardson at the U.N. and had most of the actual contact with Lewinsky. She did most of the interviewing of Lewinsky at the Watergate Hotel in 1997, and she was the one who called Lewinsky to offer her a job. She was also the one to whom Lewinsky later expressed her doubts about taking the job. Reading her May 28, 1998 deposition, we find out that she was surprised by Richardson’s haste in hiring Lewinsky, until, she later told prosecutors, she came to figure out that that was the way Richardson always worked:
SUTPHEN: [Richardson] called me into the office and said, you know, I’ve decided to hire Monica Lewinsky, what do you think? And I said, oh, you know, that’s fine. I said, are you sure, and he said yeah, yeah, I’m sure, why? And I said, no, no, you know there’s no issue, are you sure, though, you don’t want to talk to anybody else, you don’t want to interview anybody else? And he said, no, no, I think it’s fine, why don’t you go ahead and giver her an offer. And I said, I think we ought to bring her up to New York and actually, you know, talk to her, show her where she’d actually be working and, you know, get into more detail. And he said, yeah, that’s a good idea, why don’t you call her and try to set something up, bring her up here and we’ll bring up [another Richardson aide] for the day, too.
PROSECUTOR: Why did you ask him if he wanted to interview any other people?
SUTPHEN: Well, at the time, I thought that it was, you know, very quick. And in retrospect, even though I was kind of hired that way, like about, in fact, much quicker, after about 20 seconds, I hadn’t had as much experience with him interviewing people and hiring people and meeting with them and that whole dynamic. I think it was the first that that had happened, that I had been participating in. Since then, he’s hired probably five people in a very similar way, without interviewing anybody else. So I’ve come to learn that it’s very normal behavior for him.