Behind the Scenes with Laura Graham ’95
Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and chief operating officer of the Clinton Foundation leads with quiet effectiveness. Starting as an intern in the White House, Laura Graham now manages a staff of 1,400 employees in more than 40 countries.
By Laura Barlament
Laura Graham ’95 remembers well the first time she conducted a briefing for the president of the United States in the Oval Office.
It was in 2000, Bill Clinton’s final year in office. Graham was serving as deputy director of White House scheduling. At age 27, she was one of the youngest people ever to hold a deputy assistant position in the White House, reporting directly to one of the president’s senior staff members.
Usually these 10-minute, rapid-fire briefings would be given by Graham’s boss, Stephanie Streett, a veteran White House staffer who had taken Graham under her wing. “Sometimes these were tense meetings, because the president was always very busy and always running behind,” Graham recalls. Graham had often attended, and had even briefed him as Streett’s deputy — but Streett was always in charge.
But now Graham’s mentor was out for two weeks for her wedding. Graham was on her own. She was nervous.
On the agenda was an upcoming meeting with the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, who was often on the president’s schedule as he tried to broker peace in the Middle East before leaving office. Somehow Graham managed to mispronounce the prime minister’s name. Clinton — whom Graham describes as “always smarter than anyone in the room” — immediately corrected her. Inside, she wilted. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get fired.’
“And of course I wasn’t.”
These days, Graham is on a first-name basis not only with Bill Clinton, but with many world leaders. When the prime minister of Haiti comes into her office at the Clinton Foundation, he greets her with kisses on both cheeks. During her years as a White House staffer, she traveled to well over 50 countries and witnessed world-shaping events in person. Clinton’s chief of staff since 2005, she’s a figure you may have seen hovering at his elbow in television footage of his visits to disaster sites such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Haiti after the January earthquake. She manages his schedule and his staff, keeps him focused and informed as he travels from event to event, and is chief of operations of his foundation, an organization of 1,400 employees in more than 40 countries around the world. Besides helping to build that organization from the ground up, she was intimately involved in the international aid effort following the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, served as co-chair of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, and now is a key figure in the rebuilding of Haiti.
In the words of Jeff Kraus, a Wagner political science professor who was one of Graham’s first mentors, “She’s the one in the background, making things happen while others are taking pictures.”
The Road to Politics
Laura Graham is not an effusive person. Unlike her famously charismatic boss, she does not have to shake hands with everyone in the room, and her smiles are rare and brief.
It’s a contrast Graham readily acknowledges. “I work for one of the most eloquent speakers of his generation, so it’s a hard act to live up to,” she said in a talk at Wagner last November. “Whenever I tell him I am going to make a speech, his one request is that I not embarrass him.” It’s a great line, but she barely stops for the laugh, keeping her chin tucked down and reading her speech at the speed of an auctioneer.
Graham was born and raised on Staten Island, to parents she describes as hard-working, blue-collar folks. Her father, Claude Graham, who passed away in 2007, often held down several jobs to make ends meet. Her family never owned their own home, never traveled. “Shopping trips to New Jersey were considered journeys that required weeks of planning,” recalls the woman who made a career of presidential travel scheduling.
It was an inauspicious beginning for someone on her career track, she admits. But she was a hard worker and a high achiever. After graduating from Susan E. Wagner High School, Graham attended Wagner College, commuting from home, her tuition paid for by academic and athletic scholarships. (She played softball, first and third base.)
Politics was a new interest for Graham in college. As Graham tells it, her family was politically disengaged until Bill Clinton entered the national political scene during the 1992 presidential campaign. His focus on working-class concerns caught Claude Graham’s eye; and his daughter, who wanted to go to law school and become a prosecutor, took notice as well, even attending a Clinton rally at the Meadowlands just before the November 1992 election.
Graham became increasingly interested and involved in politics, declaring a major in political science, joining the political science club, and helping to start a chapter of the College Democrats on campus in the fall of 1993.
She was looking for an internship with the state government in Albany when fate intervened to send her to D.C. instead. In March 1994, the Wagner College Democrats were invited to help with a presidential visit to New York City, and Graham ended up driving the NBC news crew in the presidential motorcade. They suggested that she pursue a White House internship, and even introduced her to the White House press assistant. “I smiled politely, took his business card, never intending to follow up,” she recalls. “I remember my father telling me that I had little chance because it was probably only for kids who knew someone important in Washington.”
She gives Professor Kraus much of the credit for what happened next. He was not going to let this self-effacing yet brilliant student miss this opportunity. “She was very bright but also very quiet,” he says. “If you knew her, you knew she had great potential. That’s why I encouraged her to apply for the internship.” At his urging, she applied; and when her first application was rejected, he kept on her to apply again. From August to December 1994, she interned in the White House’s scheduling office.
The White House Years
The White House Office of Scheduling and Advance is not exactly one of those areas that are in the media limelight. But those are the people who keep the wheels of the presidency running — literally and figuratively. “Without them, nothing would happen,” Graham says.
After her internship, Graham returned to Wagner and completed college. Then she went right back to D.C. Sleeping on friends’ couches and living off credit cards, she worked as a volunteer in the White House scheduling office until she was offered a job a couple months later. She promptly dropped the graduate program she had begun at Catholic University and began more-than-full-time work as a staff assistant.
Graham’s job was to type the president’s daily schedule and distribute it to everyone who needed it — and it wasn’t uncommon for his schedule to be finalized very late in the day. “I spent many a night sleeping on an old, beat-up couch by the copier,” she recalls. “To this day, I have an aversion to copiers. But I was happy to do it. It was an honor to me.” And she was back at work the next morning for her 10 o’clock daily briefing meeting with the White House military team and the Secret Service.
“It was a great job,” she adds. “I interacted with all the agencies and departments and pieces of the executive branch, and so it gave me a great seat to see how [the president's] day came together, how they put together a schedule strategy, a political strategy, a message strategy, a policy strategy. I had access and got to see at a very young age how a lot of things worked, in addition to the planes, trains, and automobiles aspect of it, by working with the military offices and the Secret Service. So that was a really fascinating job.”
In 1997, she was promoted to the scheduling desk, at the level of special assistant to the president. (In the White House staff hierarchy, that’s the third level away from the president.) Now she wasn’t just coordinating information, but actually coordinating the president’s travel, both domestically and abroad. On any given day, she might be managing on-site teams in up to eight different locations preparing for the president’s arrival; or she might be flying out to Asia, or Russia, or wherever the president planned to go in coming months, to meet with government officials there; or she might be flying with the president to oversee the execution of every detail of the trip — “all the way down to what steps the president was going to take, and which way he would enter, and what the photo would look like.”
“So I’ve been on Air Force One a lot,” she says, and to so many countries that sometimes she forgets where she’s been. “It was amazing, because I was a kid who had never flown before my experience at the White House, and my family had never flown,” she says.
In 2000, she received yet another promotion, to serve as deputy director of the White House scheduling office. “It was a pretty significant jump from special assistant to deputy assistant,” Graham notes — it even required an interview with Chief of Staff John Podesta. “I look back at that as a really important moment. … He made me sweat it out and gave me a really difficult interview, but then he gave me the job and offered me some advice.”
Graham gives much credit to Stephanie Streett, director of scheduling for most of Clinton’s White House tenure (and current executive director of the Clinton Foundation), with giving her even greater opportunities than might have normally been associated with her job. Streett took Graham to the daily 7:45 a.m. senior staff meetings attended by cabinet members and the other most senior White House officials. “I was always the youngest and most junior person in the room,” Graham says. “So she gave me an incredible opportunity.”
But it wasn’t just that opportunities were given to her; Graham made the most of them with her hard work and mental toughness.
“You’d have to prove yourself in meetings,” she explains. “Like in meetings with the national security adviser, Sandy Berger, who now is a very close friend of mine, but also would not necessarily take the word of a young staff member. … He would put me through the wringer, too.”
But, she says, she put her mind to learning from these situations. “I never got intimidated or became a shrinking violet if I got yelled at, criticized, or cut off. I sort of said, ‘He’s the national security adviser, and I’m the deputy director of scheduling, so I’m going to learn from this, and I’m going to learn from him, because he has a helluva lot more experience than I do, and I’m going to turn this into a positive.’”
It’s not just when she’s giving speeches that listening to Laura Graham talk feels like drinking from a fire hose.
“I always fit the stereotype of a New Yorker — loud — and I’ve never been accused of talking slow at any time in my life,” she says, “but I have definitely mastered the art of the quick briefing — the art of getting to things as quickly as possible, so that you can move on to the next thing.
“I don’t know if you’d call it a skill I’m proud of,” she adds ruefully, “but it’s definitely a skill.”
And it’s a useful one. In her current dual role as Clinton’s chief of staff and as chief of operations for the Clinton Foundation, she doesn’t have any time to waste. As she explains it, “I’m just managing everything.” Clinton’s office and the Clinton Foundation are two legally different entities, tied together by one larger-than-life man who likes to take on as much as several normal guys.
“If [Clinton] thinks he can make a difference, he’s going to do it, no matter the time commitment,” she says. And when he gets involved, she does, too.
Back in 2001, when Graham returned to New York at Clinton’s request to serve as his director of scheduling, the organization had only 12 staffers. Since then, it has been on a phenomenal growth curve — it’s now up to 1,400 staff members who work around the globe. The foundation’s 2009 annual report boasts achievements such as drastically reducing the price of antiretroviral drugs, thus giving 2.6 million HIV/AIDS patients access to these life-saving medicines; starting health and fitness programs in 9,000 American schools; and, through the Clinton Global Initiative, producing more than $57 billion of commitments that have improved the lives of 220 million people in 170 countries.
As Peter Baker wrote in a New York Times story about Clinton and his foundation, “The claimed successes at times sound grandiose. … [Yet,] whatever the details, the foundation’s work clearly has yielded tangible results.”
And much credit for these results goes to Graham.
“I can’t say enough good things about her,” says Doug Band, Clinton’s chief counsel and longtime aide, who began his career as a White House intern at the same time Graham did. “She’s the glue that holds it all together. She does a tremendous job as President Clinton’s chief of staff. She is very principled, ethical, loyal, and hard-working, and she has given her life to this endeavor. The president’s success in the post-presidency is due to her and her gifts. And she gives herself in an incredibly unfettered and unselfish way.”
Since January, most of that unselfish giving has gone toward Haiti. In fact, at her last speaking engagement at Wagner, on November 12, 2009, she named it as one of her favorite areas of involvement. Since Clinton was appointed the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti in May 2009, she has overseen his work there. Typical of the Clinton Foundation’s methods, her efforts were aimed at bringing together the government, business, and NGOs to create sustainable solutions by creating jobs and improving health — not administering hand-outs.
Little did anyone know that exactly two months later, the Haitian situation would become unimaginably more acute. The massive earthquake that hit on January 12 killed more than 222,000 people, left 1.3 million homeless, and decimated the government. The Clinton Foundation not only mobilized immediate help, raising millions of dollars and serving as a clearinghouse for information, supplies, and volunteers, but is committed to Haiti for the long term. Clinton himself serves as co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, which the Haitian government established to guide the country’s recovery process. Graham is the one behind the scenes, making sure his vision for Haiti’s future is realized. (Read more about Graham’s involvement in rebuilding Haiti.)
“She’s singlehandedly running [Clinton's] Haiti efforts,” says Doug Band. “The people of Haiti owe her a huge debt of gratitude, although they’ll never know that.”
Behind the Scenes with Bill Clinton
Listening is the first thing Graham names when asked what she has learned from working with Bill Clinton all of these years. “He’s taught me to listen a lot closer to people,” she says. “He’s a wonderful listener. That’s why he’s a great communicator.”
These famous communication skills were in evidence at an event that brought Graham back to familiar ground: Wagner’s Spiro Sports Center, where Clinton campaigned for Staten Island Congressman Michael McMahon at a September 3 rally.
While Clinton gave a rousing 30-minute speech and afterward shook every hand, signed every autograph, and smiled for endless photos, Graham hung out with her extended family and played with her 15-month-old foster son, Matthew, in between working her BlackBerry. (She has foster parented five children and is looking to adopt.)
Just before leaving, Clinton spoke personally about his chief of staff. “I’ll tell ya, there’s one reason why Laura is where she is today,” he said with a mischievous look and a long pause. “It was all Wagner!” With a big laugh, he gave Graham an affectionate side hug. Looking chagrined, she retorted, “It was all you!”
More seriously, Clinton said that what makes Laura so good at what she does is not just her speed and not just her hard work — it is all those things combined with keen intelligence. “She works hard, and she’s smart enough to know what to work hard at,” he said. “And she gets stuff done!” Listing the Clinton Foundation’s slate of global projects, with a special mention of the work in Haiti, Clinton said, “It wouldn’t be possible without her.” With Clinton’s hand on her shoulder making her stay put, Graham looked more and more embarrassed. “She’ll never take any credit for it,” he remarked. (“I’m reserved, and I don’t like to take credit,” she later admitted. “So it was an uncomfortable posture for me.”)
“Also, she has the gift of disagreeing with someone without making them mad,” Clinton added — a comment that made Graham smile.
“Clinton has been like a second father to me,” says Graham. “And I don’t say that lightly, because I had a very good relationship with my father.” Claude Graham was enormously proud of his daughter’s work, too, and he wasn’t shy about bragging about her, or the phone calls he received from Clinton himself during his final illness. Family members were shocked and delighted when Clinton appeared at Claude’s funeral on Staten Island. “My father would have thought that was the coolest thing,” she says wryly.
Graham calls Clinton “the hardest-working, most dedicated public servant I have ever seen,” but she matches him step for step. Her reward and satisfaction come not from public recognition, but from sticking with things for the long term. “Seeing it through is very important,” she observes. “Any time you can leave your work and say I played a tiny part in helping, it’s worthwhile. I sometimes remind the staff of this: If you can contribute in some small way to helping someone, somewhere, it’s a good day.”