The Go-Between

Bill Clinton's emissary to Washington interest groups douses fires and soothes egos.

January/February 1998

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The President of the United States was in a sour mood. It was the first weekend of October, and he had planned to talk about family values in his weekly radio address. But there was a problem. That same day, more than 500,000 men calling themselves Promise Keepers would flood the Mall in Washington and beg God's forgiveness for their mistakes. Struggling to understand how the march would mesh with his planned radio message, Bill Clinton summoned a small group of advisers. One of them was Maria Echaveste.

"There were five of us in the room," says Echaveste, '76, "and he's looking at each of us and asking, 'What do I say?'" Clinton confided he was uncomfortable with the Promise Keepers' rhetoric -- which some had branded patriarchal -- and the group's ties to the religious right.

But Echaveste and the others argued that a mass repentance by thousands of American men ought to be commended, not criticized. In the end, Clinton agreed. In his radio address, he both acknowledged the controversy surrounding Promise Keepers and praised them for urging men "to reassume their responsibilities to their families and to their children."

Echaveste has grown familiar with this sort of White House emergency. As director of the administration's office of public liaison, she's the emissary between the White House and the interest groups that proliferate in Washington. It's a job that often finds her dousing fires and soothing egos. One minute, she's a fact-finder, responsible for determining what supporters want and conveying that list to the president; the next, she's a cheerleader, trying to sell these very allies on the president's initiatives. It's a tricky position, especially since Clinton has made a habit of straying from -- and thus alienating -- his traditional base of Democratic supporters.

Echaveste's portfolio includes issues both hot and delicate. She reviews plans for a Korean War memorial, irons out talking points for the president's trip to Latin America and peddles his national conversation on race. "And that was just today!" she says with a laugh, sitting in her office in the West Wing of the White House.

Echaveste has won high marks for political savvy. Last spring, disabled-rights groups threatened a noisy protest at the dedication of the capital's Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial if it didn't include a statue of FDR in a wheelchair. Echaveste stepped in, meeting with the groups and convincing Clinton to ask Congress for an addition to the site that would depict Roosevelt's disability. Congress agreed, and the demonstration was called off. In September, she advised Clinton to modify his plan for national education tests, urging him to allow those who speak English as a second language to be tested in their native tongue. "We made our case that he wasn't going to have the votes," she says. Echaveste proved to be right; the president's refusal to alter his proposal angered Hispanic supporters and contributed to the plan's defeat in the House.

Echaveste, 44, grew up in Texas and California, the eldest of seven children of Mexican immigrants. In 1972, she defied her father and cobbled together enough scholarship money to attend Stanford. "The constant battles I had with my father had to do with [my] becoming too American," she says. "It was a tremendous struggle for him. He felt if he didn't control the members of his family, heaven knows what would happen to them."

At Stanford, Echaveste moved easily among different ethnic and social groups. "I thought Maria had an incredibly winning personality -- she could make conversation with just about anybody," says Lee Rosenbaum, '76, who worked with Echaveste in Stanford student government and in the Los Angeles law firm she joined after graduating from Boalt Hall Law School in 1980. "She's very astute," Rosenbaum adds. "She knows political goals are accomplished within the framework of the system, rather than from the outside."

That knowledge served her well at the New World Foundation, a nonprofit where she met fellow board member Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 1980s, and also at the Labor Department, where she headed the wage and hour division during Clinton's first term. At Labor, she helped secure passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the minimum wage increase by lobbying Congress and the interest groups.

Echaveste gave her profile a boost when, in 1996, she persuaded celeb Kathie Lee Gifford to join the crusade against sweatshop conditions in overseas factories. The two had dinner in Manhattan after news reports revealed that Gifford's Wal-Mart clothing line was produced with sweatshop labor. Echaveste says their collaboration helped Gifford rescue herself from devastating ridicule while raising the issue's visibility. "She needed help, and we needed help," Echaveste says.

In Washington, Echaveste has maintained a keen interest in social justice issues. "Maria never forgot where she was from, her roots," says an old boss, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. When Reich stepped down in 1996, Echaveste was touted as a possible successor. (The president eventually appointed Alexis Herman, Echaveste's predecessor in her current White House job.) At the time, more than a few commentators mused that Clinton would appoint Echaveste to the Cabinet to appease Hispanic supporters.

She still bristles. "Let's be realistic: One of the consequences of diversity and affirmative action is that a good part of America, especially white America, will conclude I'm in my job -- even now -- only because I'm Latina," she says. "Well, that's their problem."

Not that Echaveste would likely have time for such concerns. Her office buzzes with activity. Even while she chats with an interviewer, members of her 18-person staff move briskly in and out. Echaveste herself, like many Clintonians, has a work day that often stretches until 11 p.m.

But she's no Beltway zealot. On weekends, Echaveste tries to make it home to the Bronx, where she catches up with her husband, lawyer Stanley Schlein. And she strives, amid the headiness of her job, to sustain a connection to the simpler life. She still sews many of her own clothes, including the gown she wore at last year's inauguration and the pink dress she wears on this warm October day. It's no surprise, then, that she's already thinking of life outside the spotlight. "D.C. is a one-company town," she says, shaking her head. "It ain't real."

Romesh Ratnesar, '96, is a writer-reporter for Time magazine in New York.


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