POLITICS
05/21/2014 04:18 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2014

Bill Clinton's Work Habits Took A Toll On His Staff, But Hillary Might Do Things Differently

WASHINGTON -- When Hillary Clinton stepped down from her position as secretary of state last year, it marked her first break from national political life in two decades, and she has clearly enjoyed her more relaxed lifestyle.

“It feels great,” she told New York Magazine in an interview in September, “because I have been on this high wire for twenty years, and I was really yearning to just have more control over my time and my life, spend a lot of that time with my family and my friends, do things that I find relaxing and enjoyable, and return to the work that I had done for most of my life.”

That image of Clinton-at-rest contrasts sharply with the portrait of her as a Blackberry wielding road warrior who logged nearly 1 million miles jet-setting across the globe as the nation's top diplomat -- a relentless pace to which she would undoubtedly return, should she decide to run for president in 2016.

Life in the White House is demanding not just for the commander-in-chief, however. While a recent study found that more than two-thirds of U.S. workers struggle to balance their obligations at work with those at home, few occupations come with responsibilities that are as mentally and physically taxing as a posting in a president’s administration. Former White House aide Gene Sperling recently described it as the “ultimate on-call job.”

And perhaps no administration dispensed with the pleasantries of a healthy work-life balance more than the Clinton White House. An infamous workaholic, President Bill Clinton often burned the midnight oil with never-ending energy that former aides say only seemed to grow by the time he left office.

“Perhaps because his father died before he was born, President Clinton was keenly aware of the fleeting nature of his time in office. He seemed to believe that sleep was overrated,” Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist who advised the president, told The Huffington Post.

A Newsweek article published shortly after he left the White House described the 42nd president as a whirlwind of emotion; a fatigued and nostalgic man consumed with solidifying his legacy before the ascension of President George W. Bush. By Jan. 20, 2001, Clinton signed a bevy of new executive orders, created eight national monuments, nominated nine federal judges and, on his final day in office alone, issued 140 pardons and commutations.

The intensity was acutely felt in Bill Clinton's cabinet, in which members found themselves waking to the president’s voice at all hours of the night on matters of arcane policy.

“My wife and I, we had the official phone right next to our bed,” former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who served as Clinton's Energy secretary, told HuffPost in a phone interview. “And whenever it was after 1 a.m., it was President Clinton. And he did it quite frequently.

“I remember some of those late phone calls my wife would turn over in bed and say ‘Oh my God.’ We put the phone in another room and I’d lock the door so she wouldn’t hear.”

Donna Shalala, who served as Clinton’s Health and Human Services secretary, memorably resorted to sleeping with her briefing books in the event of a question to which she didn’t have an immediate answer.

And Dan Glickman, secretary of Agriculture during Clinton’s second term, recalled being astonished over a presidential phone call inquiring about an obscure provision allowing the administration to regulate pork prices, which were at an all-time low.

“It was always frenetic and high intensity,” Glickman said of his time in the administration.

Learning to live with Clinton’s nocturnal schedule was also a challenge for his chief of staff, John Podesta, who has an affinity for early morning jogs.

“Clinton's a great guy to work for -- he's fun, appreciative. We had a very honest relationship. He'd yell at me. I'd yell at him,” Podesta said in the May issue of Runner’s World. “But the stress is incredible. You're always on edge. One of the things that would drive me crazy the most was that Clinton is a total night owl and I'm an early-morning person.”

“So the phone would ring at 2:30 in the morning and I would shoot out of bed. My wife would nudge me, saying, ‘That's the president, you have to wake up.’ I'd think, Oh, s–t, something bad must have happened. But most of the time, he was watching C-SPAN and wanting me to call some senator and correct what he said.”

While the workplace culture in the Clinton years may have been partly a product of the man’s own tendencies, some former aides also attributed it to a high-octane lifestyle that followed them from the campaign trail to the White House.

“I fully admit that we may have overdone it,” Michael Feldman, who served as an adviser to Vice President Al Gore, told Politico. “It was a direct extension of the campaign. People worked literally around the clock and slept in their offices. There never seemed to be enough hours.”

Jeff Shesol, who served as a White House speechwriter from 1998 to 2001, told HuffPost that it “was more that some of the senior staffers who had been junior staffers had never shaken the bad habits of the beginning administration.”

Certainly every White House faces similar workplace challenges. President Barack Obama, another night owl with two children of his own, has strived to make the office more manageable for working parents by expanding paid parental leave, installing nursing rooms and offering a low-cost, emergency day-care service. But the responsibilities of the job often weigh heavily on the mind, aides have said, even when they find themselves away from the office.

For Sperling, former top economic adviser for Presidents Obama and Clinton, the challenge was not just finding time to spend with his family, but also mentally unplugging.

“I think to succeed as a senior White House job your antenna has to be constantly up,” Sperling recently told HuffPost. “And so even when you are sprinting off to see your daughter's ballet performance, or chasing time off to help your son with his history exam, you are constantly aware of the multiple things you have to get done under extreme time pressure, with high consequences for failure.”

“So it's not just having the time,” he added, “it’s the opportunity to be 100 percent present with your family, as opposed to thinking about how much less sleep you're going to get that night because you decided to be a good dad between 7:30 and 10 o’clock.”

Shesol added that while the job can take a direct physical toll -- he scheduled a post-White House round of doctors appointments for ailments he did not have time to address previously -- it was particularly taxing on aides with children.

“I was telling one of my younger colleagues yesterday how grateful I still am that I was able to have that experience of writing speeches for President Clinton when I was young enough to have my life not totally upended by it,” he said. “You can push yourself, you can exhaust yourself, there’s not as great a cost as there was for my colleagues in that shop who were a little older and had young kids. That’s a very tough thing to pull off.”

Keeping family commitments also became more difficult in the last year of Clinton’s administration as the president held more last-minute meetings. Announced in the evening, they typically centered on polling and politics of the day and would often last until 11 p.m.

“No one asked you, 'How’s your family?' -- just, 'Be there,'” Richardson said. “You think you’d make it home on time for dinner? Forget it, you’d never make it.”

Today, political types in Washington continue to face similar pressures in the workplace. The prevalence of smartphones, email and social media such as Twitter has arguably made it even harder to unplug and recharge than it was during the Clinton years.

Yet Hillary Clinton appears to be aware of these challenges, signaling that a return to the White House wouldn't necessarily mean a return to the days of late-night phone calls and haphazard meetings.

Former aides described her as “organized,” “methodical” and “disciplined” -- words not usually associated with Bill.

“My husband has extraordinary leadership ability,” she told The New York Times in 2006. “But he was also not as interested in the day-to-day management. He was much more focused on our goals and objectives: how you do the politics, how you do the persuasion. I’m trying to meld leadership and management in a way that really suits me.”

The Times’ Mark Leibovich offered a fairly positive take on Clinton’s management style during her early 2008 presidential run, noting that it was “likely that a Hillary Clinton White House would be more punctual, precise and process-oriented than her husband’s.”

In a much-discussed 2012 article in The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter suggested that during her time at the State Department, even though the pace was relentless and staffers often brought their work home with them, Clinton at least attempted to create a schedule that allowed aides to spend time with their families.

“Secretary Clinton deliberately came in around 8 a.m. and left around 7 p.m., to allow her close staff to have morning and evening time with their families (although of course she worked earlier and later, from home),” the New America Foundation president and Princeton University professor wrote.

Clinton has also spoken about the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance, a challenge she says came easier to her because she was fortunate enough to have entered public service after her daughter, Chelsea, was grown.

“I think that this is an issue that is not a woman’s issue,” she said at the State Department’s 2012 National Work-Life and Family Month. “It is a human issue and a family issue. After all, there is little doubt that balancing work and family responsibilities is done in one way or another by people everywhere, every day.”

Under Clinton's tenure, the State Department implemented better day care, more nursing rooms and more flexible hours to help accommodate working families. Clinton was vocal about such issues as a New York senator as well.

And if life on the campaign trail set the tone for Bill's time in office, with staffers taking their cues from the boss and embracing his workaholic tendencies, it seems that Hillary has already tried to send a different message.

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress who served as policy director for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, recalled wanting to place a subordinate in charge during preparations for a debate in New Hampshire, because it unexpectedly fell on the day of her daughter’s pre-K graduation.

Clinton not only moved the day’s prep session so Tanden could attend, she adjusted the schedule throughout the fall so as to allow aides time for children in the evening.

“I had very few experiences like that with literally any male boss,” Tanden told HuffPost.

"You don't have to do the kind of cultural things people do in these positions," she said, referring to the tendency of people in powerful jobs to feel as though they must be at every meeting, the first to arrive and the last to leave -- lest their absence send a signal about waning authority. "She created a culture where people could work and have a family and still get the job done. There are very few leaders like that in Washington."

Ryan Grim contributed reporting.

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