U.S. Capitol building

On the Life of a D.C. Staffer: Sympathy for Huma Abedin

Jamison KoehlerCurrent Events

I feel badly for Huma Abedin, and not only for the reason you might expect.  Yes, with her husband’s confession yesterday that he lied about the Twitter photographs, she has joined Silda Spitzer, Dina McGreevy, her boss Hillary Clinton, and a long list of women who have had to endure the humiliation of a public sex scandal.  But I also feel sorry for her in her role as the consummate D.C. staffer who is suddenly thrust into the public spotlight.

Much of my first career in the federal government was spent staffing other people.  That’s what we do in D.C.  With the President being the sole exception, no matter how high you rise in government, you always have a boss. You do the work – handling the logistics, drafting the talking points, taking the fall for any mistakes — so that the “principal” comes out smelling like roses.

I had one boss who made me carry her purse.  She wanted to have the purse handy but felt it detracted from her “look.”  This was the same woman who called me up one Saturday morning because she had missed a connecting flight in Indonesia and wanted me to “fix it.”  I told her as politely as I could that, while I would be glad to do whatever I could from literally the other end of the world, she might have more luck if she went to the ticket counter and handled the matter herself.  Alternatively, she might ask the staffer we had sent with her on the trip — and who was standing by her side as she speed-dialed my number — to figure it out.

In 1990, I accompanied the EPA Administrator on a trip to London for an international meeting on the stratospheric ozone layer. As the most junior member of a delegation that included then Senator Al Gore, the task fell to me to staff the trip.  This involved the pre-trip work of travel and meeting logistics and preparing position papers, biographies, and talking points.  During the trip, it involved the herculean task of getting the Administrator from one place to the next so that we could remain on-schedule.  Post-trip it involved writing thank you letters to every single person the Administrator encountered during the trip because, after all, the Administrator was a very classy guy.

There were certainly benefits to the role I played that week.  As the “plus one” of the “Principal +1” invited to attend each meeting, I was introduced to a number of world leaders whom I otherwise never would have had the opportunity to meet.  Margaret Thatcher, for example, was remarkably gracious to a low-level staffer like myself (although getting through British security with an expired pass so that I could make the meeting was an experience I will never forget).

Al Gore, traveling without his own staff, was surprisingly low maintenance, although he did keep hijacking things, including our welcoming party at Heathrow airport and our meeting with the developing country environment ministers. I will never forget the look on the Indian environment minister’s face when Gore clasped his hands together and said in very careful English:  “We.  Need.  To.  Work.  Together.”  They do speak English in India, you know. Nor will I ever forget the look on the British doorman’s face as Al Gore stepped out of our hotel one morning in his skimpy running shorts, beefy white thighs aflashing, for his daily jog.

But in the end there is the risk that you find the whole experience remarkably unsatisfying. You have the feeling that you are standing on the sidelines as other people do great things — or, like the English butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, not so great things.  You are a witness to history but not a participant.  You are a supporting player in a cast of thousands.

And that’s why I can’t help feeling especially badly for Huma Abedin.  Pre-State Department, Abedin spent much her career attending to Hillary Clinton’s every need.  As the principal’s “handler,” she would have been there when Clinton woke up every morning and she would have been there when Clinton went to bed at night, always on call, always ready to put her own needs aside to attend to the whims of someone else.   It’s no wonder that Bill Clinton has described her as like a daughter:  I’m sure she spent much more time with the Clintons than Chelsea ever did.

We met her many years ago when, at the Renaissance weekend in South Carolina, she pulled two of our children from a roomful of people to meet with Hillary Clinton. The Clintons, sitting among friends, were relaxed and expansive but even then Abedin, strikingly beautiful with a quiet grace about her, was hard at work, watching Hillary Clinton for signals, anticipating the Former First Lady’s every need.

And then things changed. Or at least they should have. I don’t know what Abedin’s formal position was at the State Department but I can only imagine that, with Clinton’s appointment as Secretary of State, Abedin was provided a much more substantive role, leaving the day-to-day management of Clinton’s time and schedule to others. This would have allowed Abedin time to finally think about herself, to plan vacations, to set up a stable private life . . . and, as it turned out, to find romance. She and Weiner reportedly met on the campaign trail in 2008 and were married, with President Clinton presiding, just less than a year ago.

And now there is this. There is the personal hurt of betrayal. And there is the public humiliation of everyone knowing your business. How are you, people ask with grave concern. This must be particularly painful for a reportedly private person such as Abedin.  Also painful must be the realization that, like the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton in 2008, she may well have hitched herself to the wrong wagon.  That Weiner guy, after all, doesn’t look like a keeper.