WASHINGTON — Washington--Marian Wright Edelman had given her speech to an audience of Catholic leaders when suddenly the blunt-spoken, hard-driving children's advocate skipped out before the scheduled question-and-answer session with two other speakers.
As she bundled up her coat and papers in her arms and walked off the podium, her fellow panelists couldn't resist remarking on her departure -- and on her entrance to Power Washington:
"I'm not an FOB," joked Kate O'Beirne of the Heritage Foundation. "I can be here all day."
"We don't get called to the White House," chimed in John Carr of the U.S. Catholic Conference.
Truth be told, Mrs. Edelman, more of an FOH (Friend of Hillary) than an FOB (Friend of Bill), hadn't been called to the White House that morning. She merely needed to get back to the Children's Defense Fund, the organization she founded 20 years ago and still presides over, to make calls regarding the group's annual conference here that ended yesterday.
But in Washington, where perception is as good as reality, Mrs. Edelman is now perceived to be as much a part of the White House scenery as the Lincoln bed.
And for good reason.
After 12 years of swimming upstream, pressing her case for full Head Start funding or family leave legislation to an unenthusiastic White House, she has not only the ear but also the sympathies and long-standing, intimate friendship of the new administration.
It could be argued that she is the second most influential woman in Washington.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former CDF attorney and, until recently, board chair, made her post-election Washington debut at a CDF fund-raiser where she embraced her friend of more than two decades, described her as her "mentor," and whispered to Mrs. Edelman, "I love you very much."
Few were surprised when the Clintons chose the Sidwell Friends School, a private school in northwest Washington, for 13-year-old Chelsea; Mrs. Edelman and her husband, Peter, sent their three sons, Joshua, 23, Jonah, 22, and Ezra, 19, to school there.
At the pre-inaugural economic summit in Little Rock, Ark., Mrs. Edelman, a Yale Law School graduate like the Clintons, was seated next to the president-elect.
And the Edelman and Clinton orbits are nearly as intertwined as the His and Hers offices in the West Wing. For starters, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala is a former CDF board member and chair and longtime Edelman confidante. Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams, and assistant chief of staff, Evelyn Lieberman, are both CDF alumnae.
Mr. Edelman, who has sat in on administration meetings, is expected to leave his post as professor at the Georgetown University Law Center to become counsel to Mrs. Shalala. And a number of people with Edelman ties are working with Mrs. Clinton's task force on health care reform.
"A lot of people think Marian speaks for the administration," says Sharon M. Daly, director of government and community affairs for CDF, "which is absolutely not true."
But her influence on the Clinton agenda is hard to miss.
Along with making the family and medical leave bill the first to bear his presidential signature, Bill Clinton included in his recently unveiled budget package other issues long championed the Children's Defense Fund: full funding for Head Start and childhood immunization; increased funding for the Women's, Infants and Children food program; and the strengthening of child-support enforcement.
With friends in high places, Mrs. Edelman's already rapid-fire life has shifted into even higher gear. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, she speaks to groups several times a day now instead of several times of week in her swift, no-nonsense style. (She said she was too busy preparing for last week's conference to be interviewed for this article.)
And CDF, which spearheaded the battle for the 1990 child care bill and is already known as one of the nation's most successful, well-connected lobbies, has taken on an even more lustrous blue-chip aura.
For the first time, a coordinator had to be hired to deal with the onslaught of people who want to volunteer. Registration for last week's conference had to be cut off weeks ago after more than three times the usual number of paying participants had signed up. And more unsolicited donations than ever are pouring into the privately funded organization, which is supported by foundations and such corporate giants as Coca-Cola, AT&T;, Chrysler, Exxon, Ford, General Mills and Anheuser-Busch.
It is no secret that for the next four years at least, CDF, which focuses on the nation's 14 million children living in poverty, will hold an extraordinary handful of power in its back pocket.
"It's clear their imprint is on a good bit of what's being discussed in this administration," says Bill Mattox, research director for the conservative Family Research Council. "The central question is whether America's children will be better for it."
Mrs. Edelman, 53, born of the civil rights movement of the South, is seen as the "intellectual leader," as one moderate Democrat put it, of the liberal side of the Clinton agenda, the side favoring more government spending for social programs.
Although her side has scored points so far, she is poised for some battles ahead, on issues such as welfare reform, with "new Democrat" Bill Clinton and the more moderate wing of the party.
Agreement and tension
"Both sides agree that the central social challenge of this administration is to reverse the current trend of declining child well-being," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, of which Mrs. Edelman is a former board member. "After that, tensions do emerge."
The New Democrats emphasize personal responsibility and believe welfare reform and other measures are needed to discourage the proliferation of poor, single-parent families. More traditional Democrats like Mrs. Edelman believe "Government either can't or shouldn't seek to do anything about family structure. [They believe] what it ought to do is deal with the consequences of children in need and their families," Mr. Blankenhorn said.
But even with opponents on both ideological sides, CDF has been wildly successful in its 20 years -- growing to a staff of 125 in Washington with eight state offices around the country and an annual budget of more than $10 million.
Much of its success is due to an aggressive public relations operation and a research arm that pours out reams of statistics and factoids. Mrs. Edelman's speeches are peppered with figures that often provoke gasps from her audiences:
"Every seventh American is poor, every sixth family is poor, every fifth child is poor. . . . Every 8 seconds a child drops out of school, every 13 seconds a child is abused or neglected, every 26 seconds a child runs away from home. . . ."
But even those who are critical of the fund acknowledge that its success is largely due to the zeal, passion and charisma of its leader -- and her savvy 20 years ago in framing issues of poverty and the underclass as issues of children.
Ironically, it is a strategy she is both revered and reviled for.
Conservatives like Robert Rector of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation believe, "She uses the word 'children' the way Clinton uses the word 'investment.' You can put anything under that. Clearly, she's very successful in wrapping herself up in the image of helping children. Most people aren't going to take swipes at that."
On the flip side is longtime friend and fellow civil rights advocate Roger Wilkins, who calls this calculated move "genius." As does the first lady.
CDF was not even an idea yet when Yale law student Hillary Rodham heard Marian Wright Edelman, a civil rights lawyer who was turning her legal skills toward the plight of poor children and families, speak at her campus in the spring of 1970.
"Hillary saw in Marian, probably for the first time, a woman consumed by the desire to do something in the public sector," says John Deardourff, a Republican political consultant and CDF board member who's known both women for many years. "If, at the time, Marian's mission had been something different, I think Hillary would now be as interested in whatever that was."
Hillary Rodham made sure she worked for Mrs. Edelman that summer as an intern. And after graduating from Yale, she joined Mrs. Edelman's brand new Children's Defense Fund operation, started in an old Victorian house in Cambridge, Mass., in the summer of '73.
Mrs. Clinton stayed for only a year, but continued a close relationship with Mrs. Edelman through the years.
"Marian was, for all of us, an exciting, creative, mold-breaking, inspirational person to work for," says Daniel Yohalem, a director in the New Mexico attorney general's office and former CDF attorney. "She had a formative effect on all our lives."
Through marriage, children and now a presidency, Mrs. Edelman has given "extraordinary guidance" to Mrs. Clinton's life, says Brooke Shearer, a close friend of Mrs. Clinton.
Although many assumed Mrs. Edelman would land in the Clinton Cabinet -- and some still see her as a likely Clinton Supreme Court appointment -- she has for years told friends she believes her mission is best played out on the "outside."
Some believe she is too strident, too stubborn, too self-righteous to work for anyone but herself; indeed, even a fan says, "She is FTC not viewed as particularly easy to work for."
In 1989, for instance, Mrs. Edelman publicly derided then-Rep. Tom Downey of New York and Rep. George Miller of California -- both of them longtime children's advocates -- for seeking compromises in the child-care legislation, an exchange that blew up into a nasty rift.
"The one thing that irritates me is the CDF people, led by Marian, have a point of view of the world that says if someone disagrees with them, they are morally wrong, they are morally suspect, they are bad people, they don't love children," says one Edelman colleague. "It is a level of arrogance I find absolutely stunning."
Edelman admirers -- in anti-poverty circles she is a near saint -- acknowledge this intense nature, but call it single-mindedness, focus and uncompromising devotion.
"She's tough, combative, sure of herself. And some people have complained of rough handling," says Samuel Halperin, director of the American Youth Policy Forum and a longtime friend. "But when you think you're fighting the Lord's battle and doing it for children, you get pretty set in your ways."
Boston producer Henry E. Hampton, a CDF board member who last summer stumbled across Mrs. Edelman off by herself at a conference playing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" on the piano, puts it another way: "She's a Spelman woman."
For the granddaughter, daughter, sister and aunt of Baptist ministers, who grew up in rural Bennettsville, S.C., the lessons her parents taught her about service and morality were cemented at Spelman College in Atlanta.
"There is a very strong religious underpinning to everything Marian does," says Mr. Deardourff. "To miss that is to miss everything about Marian."
After Spelman and Yale, Marian Wright packed her bags for Mississippi, where she provided legal services for civil rights protesters, became the first black woman admitted to the state bar, and started the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Jackson, earning respect from even some of the racist judges.
In 1967, after testifying before a Senate committee about poverty in Mississippi, she took then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy -- and his aide, Peter Edelman -- to the Delta to see conditions firsthand. The sharecroppers' shacks and malnourished children shocked Kennedy and brought to light the poverty associated with segregation.
Although firmly rooted in the black Baptist tradition, she married Mr. Edelman, a white Jewish lawyer, a year later, following him to Massachusetts and eventually heading the Harvard Center for Law and Education. In a drawer there, she found a funding proposal for a "Children's Defense Fund."
"She took the words of the title and threw the rest of it away," says Paul Smith, a data analyst who's been working for Mrs. Edelman since those early days.
Since then, she has steered her organization -- "like a sports car," says Mr. Smith -- through all but four years of Republican opposition at the top. That is, until now.
The true measure of her influence in the Clinton administration will be seen in the battle over welfare reform, the centerpiece of the president's claim to be a new kind of Democrat. Although CDF favors some sort of reform, it opposes the mandatory work after two years of welfare checks and training that Mr. Clinton has proposed.
"Having Hillary where she is, having Donna [Shalala] where she is -- these are people Marian has worked with for years. That helps," says Mr. Yohalem. "But she knows they can't wave a
magic wand and make all the problems go away."
THE EDELMAN FILE
Current Position: Founder (in 1973) and president of the Children's Defense Fund.
Hometown: Bennettsville, S.C.
Marital status: Married to Peter Edelman.
Children: Three sons, Joshua, 23, Jonah, 22, Ezra, 19.
Education: Spelman College, Yale Law School.
Notable distinction: First black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar; received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."
Latest publication: "The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours."
Pet CDF projects: Urging vastly increased spending for Head Start, immunizations and nutrition programs.