She calls him “Wooffie.”
Of all the quirky little details that pile up when one gathers a dossier on Howard Wolfson’s year as the communications director for the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the fact that the First Lady of the United States has graced him with an affectionate, if arguably canine, moniker just might be the quirkiest. But maybe not.
The world of the 37-year-old Mr. Wolfson is a world of quirky little details, and everyone in the orbit of his bearded, balding, always-confident-but-slightly-sad-seeming self can tick them off, in no particular order of significance.
Which is not to say these quirky little details are entirely without significance. For if all his increasingly familiar eccentricities (see below) have rendered Mr. Wolfson a major character in the Clinton camp, they also render him an apt metaphor for the Clinton campaign as a whole. Considered in his full context, Mr. Wolfson is not just a mildly neurotic, workaholic, improbably famous fellow. He is also kind of a science experiment: living proof of what happens when a person is subjected to working on a political campaign of unprecedented size, length, velocity, intensity and visibility. Taken together, these quirks add up to the case of a persona that masks the person, for Mr. Wolfson is one of the most aggressive, least reviled members of the campaign team.
At first, though, they are just a comment upon his, um, vivid individuality. To wit:
Mr. Wolfson is allergic to chocolate and nuts and actually savors SnackWell’s cookies (ideally, vanilla creme sandwiches). He drinks regular Coke by the riverful, beginning at breakfast. (On Sunday, June 25, at a late lunch with The Observer at Nadine’s in the West Village, in the parched aftermath of marching his candidate through the Gay and Lesbian Pride March, he consumed five.) Having once been on an airplane that was struck by lightning, only to find himself, within a year, on another plane that had to make an emergency landing because of a fire in the engine, Mr. Wolfson now dreads flying so much that he would rather drive to Buffalo than cruise there aboard the First Lady’s snazzily named, snazzily outfitted jet, Foxtrot One. He has something of a “twisting” fetish: If, for instance, you are wearing a necklace and you play with it with your fingers, he will go mad with the desire to tear it off you and start twisting it himself. “He was an only child,” explained a Freudian colleague.
He has also been known, when things get hairy at Hillary headquarters on Seventh Avenue, to close the press-office door so that he and his two deputies, the very tall Karen Finney and the very tiny Karen Dunn, can dance around for a few minutes.
Partly because of the flying thing, he checks weather.com a lot. He dresses with such consistent drabness that Mrs. Clinton, whose own lack of fashion passion has been the subject of much journalism, teases him about it. His beloved, faintly Alpine sweater vest, which he describes as “flaxen,” has occasioned at least as much campaign-trail comment as anything said or done by the candidate. In fact, soon after she joined the campaign, the considerably more stylish Ms. Finney escorted him to Saks Fifth Avenue for the purchase of two new suits–one of which, it bears noting, had been modeled by George Clooney on the cover of GQ .
Hold the Peanut Butter!
Mr. Wolfson also has a black cloud over his head, invisible to most but obvious nonetheless from his semi-regular run-ins with the physical universe. Indeed, to make even a partial list of the scrapes he has suffered is to wonder what exactly God has against him. When Mr. Wolfson first met Mrs. Clinton, at an April 1999 fund-raiser for Westchester Rep. Nita Lowey (whose chief of staff he was at the time), he had a sneaker on one foot and a bandage on the other. Weeks later, when Ms. Lowey had removed herself from the realm of senatorial speculation and Mr. Wolfson was summoned to the Map Room of the White House for a one-on-one job interview with the First Lady, it was his first day back in regular shoes. Not long after that, when the First Couple were famously vacationing in upstate Skaneateles and stopped off at a local fair, Mr. Wolfson recklessly accepted some peanut butter taffy. His allergy went straight to the throat, and the presidential paramedics actually got to save someone that day. (“‘I don’t always travel with the President,’” Mr. Wolfson remembers Mrs. Clinton as saying. “‘You have to be more careful!’”) On Jan. 11, in the state-of-the-art gymnasium at Hobart and William Smith College in upstate Geneva, as Mrs. Clinton interfaced for an eternity with students about community service, Mr. Wolfson was simply minding his own business, pacing around and talking on his cell phone, even preening a little that his candidate was finally going to do The Late Show with David Letterman . Suddenly, for no good reason, he sprained his ankle.
Recently, at an outdoor press conference on Long Island, the sun made him turn pink and peel. And on the weekend of June 17, he was absent from the Albany County Democratic Picnic and from the airwaves, where he has become a regular presence: He had developed reddish eyes and severe eczema, brought on by stress.
Ironically enough, none of this is to imply that Mr. Wolfson is not up to the task at hand. “He earned her trust,” said Mandy Grunwald, Mrs. Clinton’s media adviser and longtime confidant. And indeed, Mr. Wolfson does, by all accounts, seem to have cleared this most important hurdle. (How much he has cleared it by is, of course, a matter of some dispute.) “It’s not about him being under pressure from others, because people don’t think he’s doing a bad job,” concurred another campaign insider. “Quite the contrary–he’s very much a shining light in this group of strategists.” Indeed, in a campaign of strong wills and self-proclaimed experts, Mr. Wolfson is widely depicted as having secured his spot at the center of decision-making about the press, and near the center when it comes to some other aspects of strategy, such as appeals to suburban moderates and Jewish voters. And he has, by several accounts, had a definite hand in some of Mrs. Clinton’s finer, bolder moments, such as the Letterman appearance and her decision to address the Independence Party convention. All the same: “He sometimes, but not always, thinks the sky is falling,” joked deputy campaign manager Neera Tanden, Mr. Wolfson’s best friend on the campaign. Not that Mr. Wolfson never loosens up. Indeed, at the Gay and Lesbian Pride March he could be seen vogueing right in front of the First Lady, behind a truck blaring Madonna.
And despite poll numbers that suggest Mrs. Clinton is in a stubborn tie with her opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, the campaign had been finding a groove lately: Like Mrs. Clinton, her communications director is the type who is at his best when rising to an attack.
“By and large he is an aggressive person,” said a close campaign colleague. “He is someone who would much rather be on the offensive.” Lately, Mr. Lazio, by virtue of some of his congressional votes–and, in the case of a northeastern oil reserve for home-heating cost relief, one very damaging non-vote–has given him occasion to be just that.
Then why does he look like hell half the time?
By all accounts, that reflects the kind of guy he is. But it is also, indisputably, the kind of campaign this is. “Chuck was a sprint; this is a marathon,” said Mr. Wolfson, referring to the few months he spent as the communications director for then-Rep. Charles Schumer’s successful bid to oust Sen. Alfonse D’Amato–which was, it now feels almost quaint to say, the hottest contest in 1998. Where most statewide campaigns go on for a few months, and come under real scrutiny for perhaps a few weeks, this one has been over the top and under a microscope for more than a year.
“My life changed overnight,” said Mr. Wolfson of his being hired. “I got a pager that never stopped paging and a cell phone that never stopped ringing.” Then based in Washington, D.C., as he had been while working for Ms. Lowey, Mr. Wolfson took to arriving at his former office, down the hall from Harold Ickes’ on Connecticut Avenue, at 6:30 a.m. and staying till midnight. How many calls did he get? “So many that I was never off the phone and never able to return all the calls.” He now arrives in the office between 7:30 and 8 a.m., and there are no longer hundreds of reporters trailing the candidate. But the campaign is still fielding hundreds of press requests a day, from news outlets ranging from the Watertown Daily Times to Swedish television. Mr. Wolfson, then, was only half right. This is, in fact, a marathon–but it has to be run at the pace of a sprint.
And it’s not just that the media is a beast with many heads; it’s that those heads snap in anger with some regularity. Mr. Wolfson does not, for instance, acknowledge that he plays favorites with The New York Times , but disgruntled non- Times reporters accuse him of it with some frequency. “It’s hard to pay too much attention to the Times ,” said a campaign colleague of Mr. Wolfson’s. “That’s just the way it is.”
Then there is the general war of words over “accessibility.” To a very unusual degree, Mr. Lazio is making a central issue of how much his opponent engages the press, as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made it an issue before him. That definitely enhances Mr. Wolfson’s importance. It probably also unsettles his stomach.
Moreover, candidates are not the only people to whom the press can be downright cruel: Long before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had real reason to rue those three little words– The Vagina Monologues –Mr. Wolfson was given baseless reason to do so. Late last year, at about the same time that Mr. Wolfson was experiencing the trauma of his candidate’s legendary lip-lock with Suha Arafat, several well-respected journalists gleefully conspired to ask him, at well-timed intervals, about an imaginary fund-raiser that the First Lady’s feminist friends had supposedly cooked up for her, in conjunction with that bawdy, if acclaimed, production. After one reporter produced a phony invitation to the event, Ms. Finney had to step in and implore them to stop tormenting Mr. Wolfson before he leapt out a window.
Beyond the sheer volume of pressure coming from outside the campaign, there is the powerful provenance of the pressure coming from within the campaign. The day that Mr. Wolfson interviewed for the job with Mrs. Clinton was not merely his first day back in regular shoes. It was also his first real conversation with a famous, and famously complex, woman whose image he would, a few weeks later, have to adjust–and whose confidence he would have to earn. “I don’t think he realized how private she really is,” offered a source close to the First Lady. Mr. Wolfson also had no prior experience with the icy sensation of being the One Who Has Let Her Down. And, of course, she is married to the President of the United States: How would you like to worry about catching hell from him? And she came equipped with her own staff–a comfort zone for her, a logistical nightmare for her New York political staff. If, for instance, the First Lady’s office booked her on The Rosie O’Donnell Show , Mr. Wolfson got to explain why she would talk Christmas cookies with an entertainer, but would not talk politics with reporters. As Mrs. Clinton’s focus has shifted more and more to her senatorial ambitions, those pressures have inevitably eased. But they have still not abated. Her staff would rather die, for instance, than tell you exactly how much time she spends in Washington, D.C., versus how much time she spends in Chappaqua.
On the ground in New York, Mr. Wolfson is actually regarded as one of the saner, friendlier inmates in the asylum. But deep down, they all know that there is only one friend who counts. She calls him “Wooffie.” And he, of course, calls her “Hillary.”