White House Chief of Staff John Podesta was in Galesburg Thursday to speak at Knox College, meet with local Democrats and talk with the press.
Podesta remained loyal to his boss -- to a fault -- and was careful about revealing any new information. He reiterated that the White House was not responsible for, or even aware of, the sexual peccadillo information that concerned Henry Hyde and led to the demise of Newt Gingrich or Speaker-in-waiting Bob Livingstone. ''It came as quite a shock to us. I had already met with Bob in terms of him being the next speaker. We were in a meeting at the White House when his announcement that he was resigning came on CNN and we all jumped up and said, 'what did he say?'''
During this time of the impeachment proceedings, Podesta says the White House staff tried to remain focused on running the country. ''The tougher time for me was actually the bombing of Kosovo. No one who was in a decision-making capacity thought it could be successful. When you put peoples' lives on the line and when innocent people on the other side are casualties, it weighs heavily on you.''
Podesta says that of all the leaders in Congress, he has the best relationship with House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Lately, he's been meeting weekly with a committee involved with the transition out of the White House. ''One of the interesting questions we needed to get resolved was whether National Security Council records are presidential or public. It was finally determined that they belong to the president and can go to his library.''
Podesta concurs with Al Gore that Clinton will go in history as a great president. ''If you look at the accomplishments of this administration, the budget deficit we inherited and reversed, 22 million new jobs, welfare reform, the extra police officers on the street, the decrease in crime, Kosovo, Haiti and so on history will show that this administration has been quite successful both domestically and in foreign affairs. Scandals, in history, will end up melting away -- much ado about nothing. The president will be remembered for what he did for the American people.''
Podesta, a former campus radical at Knox, would not say if he's a left-pulling influence on Clinton. ''I grew up in a blue collar family on the northwest side of Chicago. I worked for Gene McCarthy in 1968 but we're all 'new Democrats' now.
While he loves his job, especially, ''waking up every morning and not knowing how the table is going to be set,: Podesta says he's ''pretty tired.'' ''I can make it until January but I don't know if I want to sign up for another term.''
It's not every day that the president's chief of staff visits Knox College.
And it's not every day that the chief of staff is himself a graduate of the college.
And it's not every day that such a visit gives those of us lower down on the food chain the opportunity for extensive conversation with someone at the center of power.
But all of those events came together last week as John Podesta, Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton, visited his alma mater to deliver the opening convocation address at the college. The excitement was palpable, the speaker articulate, the audience receptive and appreciative.
It was, in its own way, the best of times. Even the weather cooperated, with one of those near-perfect days that the capricious middle west awards unexpectedly.
So the opportunity to ask three important questions presented itself and I could not resist . My questions, in order of their importance:
1. John, do you watch The West Wing on NBC?
2. What do you think of the program, is it realistic or not?
3. What do you think of Leo, the fictional chief of staff on the program?
Now I am willing to concede that these three questions are not of great weight on the ultimate scale of politics; they do not embrace the problems of national health care, the opportunities presented by the budget surplus, war or peace, or the survival of Social Security as we know it. But they are the three most common questions put to me by people who know who John Podesta is and who are also addicted to this ultimate political soap opera.
So, without apology, here are the responses to my three important queries:
1. ''I watch it all the time. Podesta went on to explain that it wouldn't be easy for him to ignore the show, since some of the program footage is actually shot on site in the White House.''
2. ''The program, he says, is very realistic, particularly in the ways in which policy issues interact with personal styles and characteristics. The personalities of the players are in effect important components in the president's office and the West Wing is pretty close in its portrayals of the personality conflicts that often complicate policy decisions.''
3. ''What about the West Wing chief of staff, the complex and opaque ''Leo?'' Podesta responds that he likes the character; and also confesses to having developed a friendship with John Spencer, the actor who plays the part. And in many respects, art and reality have come together.''
Proof of this growing friendship could be found during this year's Democratic Presidential Convention in Los Angeles. Spencer attended the convention as the guest of the real chief of staff and watched President Clinton's address in the box reserved for the ''real'' presidential staff. They get together when Podesta visits California; and when Spencer is in town to shoot some footage for the program. They have indeed become friends.
For Spencer, though, his job's not quite the same: ''Lives aren't at stake for me,'' he says.
What do I conclude from this?
Nothing earthshaking, but some comfort.
First, the fiction of the West Wing is not way out in some corner of left field, inventing issues and exposing dubious political strategems: the political process is portrayed realistically, even that reality that occurs in the compressed and stress-filled system that is our presidency.
Second, I conclude from what John Podesta had to say, and the way in which he said it, that real people in real power positions can and do look at themselves or their mirror images with amusement and generosity. Human qualities survive even in the most challenging of circumstances.
Third, if I can find the energy and skill necessary to program my VCR correctly, I could tape segments of the program and use them in class, as fairly accurate descriptions of how the White House works.
What student wouldn't prefer a lecture from Martin Sheen to a lecture from you know who?
And finally, next time around, I promise to ask the really tough questions, not those easy questions about art imitating life and vice versa. And if I can tear my self away from the next series of West Wing dramas.