In the hit Netflix TV series, House of Cards, a Machiavellian politician teams up with his cold-blooded wife to create the ultimate Washington power couple—successful yet unapologetically ruthless. Far from these exaggerated television characters Francis and Claire Underwood is the real-life Washington power couple of Tamera Stanton Luzzatto and David Leiter, who call Nantucket their summer home.
Both Luzzatto and Leiter had the distinction of being chief of staff to two ambitious and successful politicians in Washington: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Luzzatto is senior vice president at the Pew Charitable Trusts in D.C., while Leiter is an influential lobbyist at ML Strategies, a division of Boston-based Mintz Levin. Theirs is a true D.C. life replete with influential friends, a packed schedule of A-list black-tie events, and associations that go all the way up to the Oval Office.
For Leiter, a native of Seekonk, Massachusetts, it all began as a volunteer in Congressman Mo Udall’s 1976 presidential campaign and then a position on President-Elect Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Transition Team. He later served as a senior aide to U.S. Senator Wendell Ford and then campaign manager and chief of staff to Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Richard Licht, which led to a position on Senator John Kerry’s 1990 reelection campaign and ultimately to chief of staff in Kerry’s Washington Senate office. Leiter became well-known for his affable personal style and served during a time of ascending influence of Massachusetts’s then-junior senator. While distance from his former job gives him freedom of candor, Leiter’s admiration for the now secretary of state is palpable. “I have never met an individual so talented in so many facets of life, from his grasp of numerous foreign languages to his athleticism, to a level of intelligence that few can grasp,” he says. “Kerry to me is a vertically integrated human being.”
Tamera Luzzatto’s instincts for politics began as a government major at Harvard College, where she was the first woman elected head of the Harvard Democrats and a leader at the Institute of Politics. After graduating from Har- vard, she rose up the ranks at the office of Senator Jay Rockefeller, ultimately becoming his chief of staff and a valued confidant for fifteen years. As Luzzatto’s reputation grew in Washington, she caught the attention of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, who recruited her to become her chief of staff when she was elected senator of New York State.
Luzzatto became Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff when Clinton was sworn into office in early January of 2001. The senator was still the first lady until January 20, and she invited Luzzatto to join the Clintons over a final weekend at Camp David that hosted members of Congress and close friends. After learning she herself could bring a guest, Luzzatto thought of David Leiter, whom she had reconnected with at a recent Capitol Hill holiday party. As fate would have it, this trip to Camp David would be the couple’s first real date. Four months later, Leiter proposed to Luzzatto on the shores of a beach in Tom Nevers.
Life has had its interruptions for Leiter and Luzzatto, including Luzzatto overcoming two brain-tumor operations, from which she has fully recovered. Just eleven days before their wedding in 2001, the September 11th attacks occurred, throwing them yet another curveball. New York was still in a state of shock from the attack, and after wrestling with the decision on whether to postpone their wedding, they both agreed that the best way to respond to the terrorist attacks was to show that life goes on. After the ceremony at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, in a display of proud defiance, guest Hillary Clinton spontaneously decided to lead all the wedding guests on a walk down 5th Avenue to the reception. While Clinton’s actions did not please her frantic security detail, it made a powerful statement to all the guests and to New York City.
When walking through their house in the shadow of the National Cathedral, one quickly notices photographs of the couple with Washington’s power elite. Many of their friends are household names and provide witness to the pair’s mastery of the art of maneuvering around the circles of influence on Capitol Hill. According to Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, who has known the couple for many years, “Washington can be a cutthroat place; however both are known as consummate professionals, caring and giving people who go out of their way to help others.”
When asked about the common perception of Washington lobbyists as less than saintly, Leiter replies, “It’s like any other profession; there are those with whom you would trust with your children and there are those who you would not want your children to meet.” Leiter acknowledges, “Washington is clearly a company town, and ambition is its stock-in-trade.” He admits that while the caricature of the proverbial backroom where secret and often questionable deals are made in a culture riddled with self-interest and dishonesty are an exaggeration—Washington is not for the faint of heart. Leiter has differentiated himself by being honorable and forthright.
Luzzatto shares a similar perspective that while there are people and events that occur in Washington that give it a bad name, there is also much virtue in our nation’s capital that seldom grabs splashy headlines. She talks glowingly of both Hillary Clinton and Jay Rockefeller, and as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister she says, “It has always been important to me to serve those whose values I share.” Luzzatto shares the story of how Clinton would show up unannounced in her hospital room when she was recovering from her surgery and demonstrated a level of compassion that she will never forget. In turn, Luzzatto’s loyalty to Clinton is clear. “You learn a lot about a person by how they act when the cameras are not rolling,” Luzzatto says. “Mrs. Clinton, she is as real and wonderful as it gets.”
In a town often viewed as dirty as the Potomac it- self, the duo of David Leiter and Tamera Luzzatto has proven that Washington indeed has its bright lights. Francis and Claire Underwood would be so disappointed.