Job-seeking Clinton aides are striking out on their own

By Ann Scales, Globe Staff, 8/13/2000

ASHINGTON - A few months after Bill Clinton was inaugurated president, Kris Engskov, a 21-year-old fresh out of college, put everything he owned in a car and drove from Arkansas to Washington.

Although he had worked on Clinton's 1992 campaign, he never envisioned working at the White House. But that's where fate would place him. First he got his foot in the door as a volunteer, and months later he was getting paid for his work. By the time Engskov left the White House in June, he had become Clinton's personal aide - a man with more proximity to the president than almost anybody except Clinton's wife.

Engskov typified a group of aides Clinton playfully referred to as ''the kids who helped me get elected.'' Young and idealistic, they descended on Washington from across America, awed by the chance to serve a man who, in some cases, was the first Democratic president they were old enough to vote for.

Some of the ''kids'' like George Stephanopoulos played more visible roles in the administration. Many, like Engskov, media handler Mark Bernstein, and speechwriter Jordan Tamagni worked in the shadows of the White House - their reward for either helping Clinton get elected or reelected.

Now that the last of his two terms is winding down, the kids are stepping toward the White House exits, and most are not going back to Topeka or wherever they came from. They are departing for business school at Columbia and Stanford or careers in cable television.

While many of the more senior members have left for such posts as senior vice president at Discovery Communications and the National Basketball Association's entertainment division or jobs at political consulting firms, many of the younger aides are leaving for jobs in high-tech and finance - driven by the desire to replace the buzz of the White House with the buzz of a new and booming economy.

''Typically, these folks who've had this presidential experience are terribly valuable as lobbyists, at trade associations, and law firms, where they can make use of the experience they've acquired,'' said presidential historian Stephen Hess, who worked in the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It was Nixon who brought in the first White House ''baby corps,'' a group, though smaller than Clinton's, that included Richard Blumenthal and Christopher DeMuth, both of whom went to work for Nixon after graduating from Harvard. After he left the White House, Blumenthal joined the Marines, went to law school, and today is Connecticut's attorney general.

DeMuth went to law school at the University of Chicago and is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

''For these young people in the Clinton administration to either go back to school or to something in high-tech and finance, jobs that would not be in Washington, is something interesting and different,'' Hess said.

Engskov is a bundle of nerves. He has left the White House and moved from the city of Washington to the state of Washington. He is about to begin his first day as an analyst at a small venture capital firm in Seattle. ''I am starting at the bottom again,'' he said.

Bottom was seven years ago, when Engskov and a friend drove from Arkansas to the nation's capital without money or jobs, and on the hunt for both. Bottom was being holed up in a $35-a-night motel in a big, strange city and being ''scared to death.'' But without a bottom, there's nowhere to rise.

And rise he did, from volunteer staff at the White House to trip coordinator in the travel office to the president's aide and assistant press secretary. Engskov's job was to make sure the president was reading from the right script. In fact, he would walk up to the dais, glance down at the president's speech and place it on the lectern before Clinton rose to speak. Tall and rail thin, he was also responsible for tapping the president on the shoulder to let him know it was time to go, and for acting as chief gatekeeper outside the Oval Office. His closeness to Clinton was enough to trap him into two appearances before the grand jury investigating the president's relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

But, in June, the 28-year-old Berryville, Ark., native said goodbye to long work days and hello to a U-Haul that he loaded up and drove for three weeks to Seattle, stopping along the way to visit friends. It was quite a different journey from the one that brought him to Washington in May 1993, straight out of the University of Arkansas with a bachelor's degree in public administration and finance.

Engskov concedes that the White House was little preparation for his new job. Having sat ''in the catbird's seat of history all day,'' he said, it's time to take advantage of the new economy and ''learn a whole new business.''

Jordan Tamagni, a speechwriter and special assistant to Clinton before her departure, explained that many of her former colleagues now leaving the White House ''are looking for a buzz that's strong - when every day matters.''

''They went in there to change the world, and if they are going to leave, they still want to know that they are having an impact, doing something that is meaningful,'' she explained. ''The place to do that these days is the high-tech world, because it is actually changing the way we do things and think about things.''

Tamagni should know. She left the White House last October to work for Steve Case, chairman and CEO of America Online. She came to the White House at age 36 and ''a little bit older than most'' of the people who helped Clinton get elected, but she had the same idea - ''to set the world on fire.''

Tamagni has attended law school, taken the bar exam, and passed it in New York, New Jersey and California. She was a lawyer in Manhattan when a friend's mother put her in touch with Dick Morris, a political consultant whom Clinton brought aboard to secretly advise him after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.

The next thing Tamagni knew, she was cutting short a vacation in New Hampshire and standing in front of the Old Executive Office Building, a suitcase in one hand and an index card with the address in the other. A self-described New Democrat, ''I saw this as a real opportunity to live my values,'' she said.

She carried Morris's and the other consultants' bags, she Xeroxed things they needed Xeroxing. ''A lot of people thought I was a complete idiot for doing it. But I could care less,'' Tamagni said. ''I thought it's better to be a fly on the wall. I even thought if I write a book someday, that's the title I'm going to give it.''

After Clinton's reelection in 1996, she was promoted to the speechwriting department.

When Case began looking for a speechwriter, Tamagni, now 40, thought there was no way she would reprise that role in the private sector. But when she learned of Case's interest in education and closing the digital divide, issues she had worked on in the Clinton White House and cared deeply about, she jumped at the chance. ''I wouldn't have come here if I hadn't an opportunity to contribute to the greater good,'' she said from her office at America Online in Virginia. ''It's been a pretty good tradeoff.''

Tradeoffs are what it's all about at the White House, namely trading compensation for an experience money can't buy.

After getting a joint master's degree in business administration and law and passing the Michigan bar, Mark Bernstein probably could have made a lot of money. But he didn't. Instead, he got bitten by the Clinton bug.

After a stint in the White House Travel Office, he became director of press pool operations, a job coordinating the movement of reporters who cover Clinton.

''The most incredible thing is when we would come back from a foreign trip. Here I was flying on Air Force One, touching down at Andrews Air Force Base, and then riding in a staff van into the White House and having the gates swing open,'' he said.

''It would be 10:30 or 12:30 at night, and I would get out of the van, walk to the bus stop, and take the S-4 bus home. I always thought, as long as you kept doing that, you were always grounded. The people on the bus, they didn't know where you were coming from,'' Bernstein said. ''There was something beautiful about that. I always loved doing it.''

Bernstein, 28, is starting work this month on Wall Street at the investment firm of Solomon Smith Barney.

''Maybe in the past, people were getting to the White House when they were older and after longer careers,'' Bernstein said. ''For them, it was like the pinnacle of their career. For us, it's a piece of the puzzle. I certainly see this as just the beginning.''