When Jennifer Palmieri took the stand in the 2012 trial of fallen presidential candidate John Edwards she kept her composure—until cross-examination, when she recounted her last days at the bed of Elizabeth Edwards, then dying of breast cancer. Elizabeth “conveyed to me concern about being alone when she died,” Palmieri testified. Then, according to accounts of a trial on charges that Edwards misused campaign funds to hide his pregnant mistress, Palmieri, 48, began to sob as she explained that the candidate’s wife “was concerned that when she died, there would not be a man around who loved her. I said, ‘I will be there. Cate [Edwards’ daughter] will be there.’”
That 2012 moment in a Greensboro, N.C. courtroom provided a rare personal glimpse of Palmieri, a loyal political operative who has managed the high-profile exposure of candidates for decades while assiduously keeping the media spotlight off herself. (She declined multiple interview requests for this series). Palmieri left her post as communications director for Obama’s White House in February; she moves into that same high-level slot on the Clinton campaign, where she manages candidate message, media relations–and trouble-shooting.
Palmieri was national press secretary for the 2004 Edwards presidential bid. She remained a consultant when, in the 2008 cycle, he abruptly descended from anti-poverty champion–remember his “two Americas” campaign?– to a disgraced presidential candidate. He later would be charged with using $1 million in campaign funds to keep his pregnant mistress under wraps. According to her testimony, Palmieri counseled Edwards not to lie about his affair in an ABC interview. “I had to tell him that even I did not believe him,” she said. (After the Greensboro jury found Edwards not-guilty on one count and deadlocked on five other charges, the Justice Department dropped the case.)
“I don’t regret joining the campaign. My life will always be richer for becoming friends with Elizabeth,” Palmieri wrote in a powerful tribute to the candidate’s wife shortly before she died in 2010. Before joining his 2004 campaign, she had worried that Edwards was just a slick trial lawyer. But she was so taken by the authenticity of his wife that “I decided that if Elizabeth Edwards had chosen to be married to this guy for 26 years, he must be okay,” she wrote. “Turns out, she and I were both wrong on that one.”
This was not the first time in a political hot house. Palmieri, who started her career with then-California congressman Leon Panetta, worked during in the White House during two Bill Clinton terms, an era that stretched from budget fights to impeachment proceedings. During that period, she rose to deputy press secretary. Today, Palmieri spans the occasionally fraught worlds of Obama and Clinton; Obama brought the Clintonite into the White House in 2011. She also has tight ties to the powerful Clinton-and-Obama insider John Podesta. Now the 2016 Clinton campaign chair, Podesta founded the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, where Palmieri ran a war-room-style communications shop for six years.
The Pascagoula, Mississippi native and graduate of American University mostly commands respect with reporters, which has been helpful during testy periods with the media. Already, those skills are being sorely tested, as journalists complain about a stage-managed campaign that offers little access to Clinton, even as questions swirl about questions like her use of a private email server as Secretary of State and tens of millions of dollars in contributions to the Clinton Foundation.