The rise and fall of the Podestas, Washington’s powerful political brother act

For more than 30 years, the Podesta name was gold in Washington.

Tony Podesta was a respected lobbyist and a fundraiser for Democratic candidates. His younger brother, John, served as Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff and as senior counselor to Barack Obama. Together, they were the most powerful brother act in liberal politics since the Kennedys.

Then John became chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, putting the Podestas in the crosshairs of the alt-right. In the middle of the campaign, John’s hacked emails led to “Pizzagate,” a bizarre conspiracy theory about a child sex ring. Finally, and against all expectations, he lost the bitterly fought election.

Now Tony’s work for a Ukrainian nonprofit group is part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, prompting the powerful lobbyist to resign from the Podesta Group, the firm he founded three decades ago.

“I didn’t leave with a sense of tragedy or regret about anything I had done,” Tony said nonchalantly in an interview last week. “I thought it was better for the clients and better for the people in the office for me to get out of there.”

His bravado notwithstanding, it’s been a really bad year for the Podesta brothers, even by the standards of political hand-to-hand combat.

They’ve become a particular fixation for President Trump, who has repeatedly attacked the two in tweets and interviews. On the eve of his current trip to Asia, he told reporters he was “disappointed” that the Justice Department was not investigating Hillary Clinton and her advisers instead of him: “Honestly they should be looking at the Democrats, they should be looking at Podesta and all of that dishonesty.”

Meanwhile, Fox News is calling the Podesta brothers “central figures” in the Mueller probe.

One might expect Tony Podesta to be angry — and apprehensive — about all this, and maybe he is. But at the moment, he’s smiling and cracking jokes.

“There was a period when I was at People for the American Way in which I was the devil, and this is another period in which I am the devil,” he says. “I don’t retreat from my values or my life because Tucker Carlson makes s— up.”

And he’s laughing off the president.

“If you tweet ‘Podesta’ you get some applause from people who don’t know who we are or what we do,” he says. “He has his phone. And I have my integrity.”

Tony Podesta, now 74, worked outside politics as a lobbyist and fundraiser. (Tony Powell)

John, now 68, made his name on the inside, working for the Clinton and Obama administrations. (Kristoffer Tripplaar/For The Washington Post)

For all the talk about the Podestas being Washington insiders — and they absolutely are — the irony is that they grew up as far from elite as possible.

They were born in working-class Chicago to two first-generation Americans: their father Italian, their mother Greek, the family living in a “two flat,” with their aunt, uncle and cousins in the apartment upstairs. Their father worked factory jobs and lost sleep worrying about the $11,000 he borrowed to buy the apartment, Tony says. Tony attended the University of Illinois at Chicago; John went to Knox College.

From this background, colored by the Vietnam War and the political upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, emerged two men with a shared passion for liberal issues and a weakness for losing candidates: They worked for Gene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie, George McGovern and many more. “We weren’t doing it to go to the White House,” Tony says. “We were doing it because we believed in what we were doing.”

The two made their way to Washington, where they both attended law school at Georgetown University, worked briefly in government, then founded the Podesta Group in 1987. Their paths quickly diverged: Tony working outside politics, lobbying, fundraising and serving as president of People for the American Way, the progressive advocacy group founded by TV producer Norman Lear; John on the inside, in the Clinton and Obama administrations and as head of the Center for American Progress, the premier liberal think tank during the George W. Bush years.

The two brothers, who are very close, became powerbrokers on a first-name basis with every important figure in American progressive politics, and many across the aisle. Every call they made was answered, every door they knocked on opened.

Tony, 74, is expansive, expressive, a happy warrior. “He’s partisan in the traditional way, which is rapidly disappearing in Washington,” says longtime Republican lobbyist Wayne Berman. “He understands the value of having friends on the other side. It’s a happy partisanship, not a bitter partisanship.”

He wears red Prada loafers and owns one of the capital’s most impressive modern art collections, which serves as the backdrop for the frequent parties he hosts at his Kalorama mansion. The collection began when he worked for the failed 1980 presidential bid of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and walked away with a tube of donated art — limited editions of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg — in lieu of a salary.

Always well-known in political circles, Tony became a celebrity with his high-profile second marriage to lobbyist Heather Podesta. The two were a striking couple on Washington’s sometimes traditional social scene, frequently photographed in front of one of their paintings or sculptures. The marriage ended after 11 years with no children but a custody battle over the art…

 

Source/Read more:https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-podestas-washingtons-powerful-political-brother-act/2017/11/10/04bf1f6e-c4a6-11e7-afe9-4f60b5a6c4a0_story.html

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