Lanny Davis: The skipper for big names in dire straits

October 21, 2013

For a change, Lanny Davis isn’t commenting about something.

The man who officially defended Bill Clinton during his pre-Monica White House scandals, who crafted “crisis management” strategies for Martha Stewart and Penn State (after the Jerry Sandusky horror), whose paramount advice to his embattled and embarrassed clients is no no-commenting, isn’t talking about his latest piece of public sentiment engineering.

That would be Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s somewhat kinder and vaguely gentler stance on his football team’s name. After President Obama suggested that the Washington Redskins might consider a name a little less offensive to Native Americans earlier this month, Snyder put Davis on the case. Davis advised the owner to play nice, or at least nicer, in responding. “I respect the opinions of those who disagree,” wrote Snyder in a newsmaking open letter to fans. “I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn.”

Davis may have succeeded in toning down Snyder’s over-my-dead-body rhetoric (“We’ll never change the name,” he told USA Today in May. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”) And for a client often caricatured as a billionaire Bonaparte, that may have been the best a crisis manager like Davis could hope for.

Not that Davis is talking about it now. He says he has decided to lie low on the issue. Which puts him in an unfamiliar position. Since becoming Clinton’s media snake charmer in late 1996, Davis has been an irrepressible public gabber. He has been working the news media on behalf of clients for years, while also appearing incessantly on cable news and radio as a reliable liberal talking head, popping off about just about everything. His silence about Snyder puts him at odds with the advice he gives his customers: “Tell it early. Tell it all. Tell it yourself.”

Davis, 67, has thrust himself into the middle of so many public disputes in the past 15 or so years that he has written two memoirs about them, including “Crisis Tales,” published earlier this year. A Washington regulatory attorney and Montgomery County political operative until the Clinton gig raised his profile, he dropped much of his conventional law practice and reinvented himself as a consigliere to people and companies in “crisis,” meaning anyone taking a whupping in the media.

“I would get calls from CEOs who would say to me, ‘The lawyers are telling me not to comment, my stock is down, I’m losing my job, and my wife tells me she’s embarrassed to be with me because I’m a crook,’ ” Davis says one afternoon in his downtown Washington office. His gray suit is baggy, and his voice retains a touch of Jersey. “One led to another and another.”

So Davis became a spin doctor for hire, the man with a plan in a jam.

On Monday, Davis snagged another high-profile client: New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, who is appealing a career-threatening 211-game suspension by Major League Baseball for using banned substances. Davis will advise A-Rod’s legal and PR team on its media strategy.

Davis has been in these sorts of choppy waters before.

For the Royal Caribbean cruise line company, caught in a damaging cable TV whodunit after a young passenger mysteriously disappeared on a honeymoon cruise in 2005, Davis counseled the company to post a chronology of events on its Web site. He put the CEO on TV. He then crafted a sound bite, which the company repeated like a mantra to inquiring journalists: “We’re a cruise ship — not CSI.”

For Penn State, Davis sought to temper alumni outrage over the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno following the Jerry Sandusky scandal by trotting out school trustees to tell the media how badly they felt about the whole thing. He got a few sympathetic articles.

Yet Davis’s toughest client may have been himself. When bloggers and news organizations began raising questions in late 2010 about his $100,000-a-month retainer from Ivory Coast, then on the brink of civil war, Davis became his own “crisis” case. To this day, he says his motives in representing the African nation were misunderstood, that he was on a “secret” mission designed to defuse tensions. But he concedes, “I had only myself to blame. . . . I was representing myself, and I had a fool for a client.”

For this article, Davis did his own vigorous image management. He checked in by phone or e-mail for progress reports on the story at various hours of the day and night and on weekends. He fired off multiple e-mails about his work, suggesting, among other things, which chapters of his latest book to read (“Intro, Ch. 13 and Penn State probably most insightful”). And he volunteered a list of friends and colleagues who could speak about him. It contained 93 names. “I know,” he appended, “it’s excessive.”

The list is a bipartisan cross section of the near-famous and the mega-famous, as well as a few friends and family members. Besides his fellow Yalies — Bill and Hillary and a fraternity brother named George W. Bush — there are congresspeople, TV personalities, CEOs, news-media stars and old MoCo political cronies.

As you’d expect, many of those on Lanny’s List speak fondly of him and his work. They characterize him as a hard-working advocate for his clients, an articulate liberal voice, an all-around mensch.

Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, said Davis “made the case” to reluctant White House officials that they had to be more forthcoming when questions arose about Clinton’s fundraising practices after the 1996 election. Davis, he recalled, pushed Clinton’s lawyers to release White House visitor logs. “Lanny can wear you down at times,” said McCurry, “but he always believes he can get people to a better place.”

Fox News chief Roger Ailes, another name on Lanny’s List, recalls watching Davis on “The O’Reilly Factor” several years ago and being struck by his civility and smarts. “He’s candid, but he’s not a guy who comes in looking for a fight,” Ailes said. “A lot of cable news deteriorates into fights. I prefer a conversation.”

On the other hand, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward is a little mystified by why he’s on Davis’s list. The legendary investigative reporter said Davis was helpful when Woodward was researching “Shadow,” a book about presidential scandals published in 1999. Since then, they’ve had little contact. Davis has been in touch on behalf of clients “hardly a handful of times,” Woodward said.

“There are some fine threads that connect people in Washington,” Woodward said. “Lanny has pulled on that thread to his advantage.”

Davis grew up in Jersey City, the younger of two children. His father was a dentist, and his mother managed the dental office. He recalls a home filled with talk and debate about sports and politics, especially the Democratic kind. (Davis’s oldest son, Seth, a CBS Sports commentator, recalls something similar about his own childhood.) Davis was admitted to Yale in 1963, at a time when quotas on Jewish students were still in effect.

He was in his third year at Yale Law when he met a first-year student named Hillary Rodham (“funny, one of the guys,” as he describes her). He eventually met her friend, Bill Clinton, who started at the law school the year after Davis graduated. The three of them worked on the state Senate primary campaign of a classmate and Yale Daily colleague, a Connecticut boy named Joe Lieberman.

Photos of George W. Bush and the Clintons dominate Davis’s “ego” walls, in his office near the White House. Davis gives a visitor a tour of these mementos, pointing out the friendly inscriptions. Later, he hauls out a letter from George H.W. Bush, kidding him about partying at Yale with young George.

Davis himself tried politics in Montgomery County shortly after he began his career as an attorney in Washington. He lost his first race for the Democratic nomination for Congress as a 28-year-old candidate in 1974. In 1976, he won the nomination for the same office, but lost narrowly in the general election. The experience, he said, taught him something about humility. “Once you start believing your own press releases, you’re fooling yourself,” he says.

So Davis went back to practicing law, first for Arnold & Porter and later as a partner at Patton Boggs, two well-connected Washington firms.

In early 1996, Davis read a William Safire column in the New York Times about the Whitewater affair in which Safire branded Hillary Clinton “a congenital liar.” Davis wrote a column defending her and circulated it among some of his Democratic friends. A Clinton operative spotted it and asked Davis to answer the first couple’s critics on TV.

“That was the beginning,” Davis says. With the White House’s support, he began making dozens of TV appearances. He became an official “special counsel” a few months later.

Davis lasted 14 months in the job. With his second wife, Carolyn, pregnant with the couple’s first child (Davis has two adult children from his first marriage), he decided it was time to head for less contentious territory. He went back to his law firm. He figured the scandals were over; two weeks later, the Lewinsky scandal broke, and he was back on TV, if only unofficially.

Eventually, the stress caught up to him. A few months later, Davis had four inches of his colon removed; the diagnosis was diverticulitis, but Davis’s doctor told him the inflammation was caused by “Clintonitis.”

Davis’s “game-changing, life-changing” move came after he published his first memoir, “Truth to Tell,” in 1999. As the Enron era of corporate scandals began to flower, a few chief executives called him for help. He decided to go into the damage-control business.

This work has earned him a fine set of critics and enemies. Democracy advocates were appalled when Davis accepted a $1 million contract in 2010 from Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, oil-rich African nation with a dreadful human rights record, and another for $100,000 per month from Ivory Coast a few months later.

And he dismayed a few people in the news media, whom he schmoozes with regularly, when he went to bat for Snyder’s defamation lawsuit against the Washington City Paper in 2011.

Michael Schaffer, the former City Paper editor, said Davis’s arrival as Snyder’s adviser in that case was itself a boost for the paper. “For anyone on the other side of a [PR battle], there’s a nice thing about having their opponent engage Davis because it enables them to say, ‘See! My opponent is hiring a guy who has represented Third World dictators,’ ” said Schaffer, now editorial director at the New Republic.

Comments like that touch some still-raw nerves for Davis. The foreign entanglements, in particular, had him backpedaling against the claim that he had become “a kind of front man for the dark side,” as the New York Times put it in a front-page story in late 2010.

In each case, Davis says, he was trying to foster a peaceful outcome.

He went to work for Equatorial Guinea’s longtime dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, on a promise that Obiang would initiate democratic reforms, he said. His principal contribution was writing a speech that Obiang gave at an international conference in South Africa that committed the country to admitting human rights monitors. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the apartheid icon, later praised the speech.

“The reason I’m so hypersensitive about it is because I’m really proud of what I did,” he says. “People distorted this by saying that I advocated for [Obiang], that I defended him, that I’ll do anything for money. That’s the charge that violates all of the deepest sensibilities of who I am.”

The Ivory Coast story is a bit more complicated. Davis says he took on the assignment at the behest of the Ivorian Embassy in Washington, not the country’s then-president, Laurent Gbagbo. At the time, Gbagbo had lost his reelection bid but was refusing to relinquish power, claiming widespread voter fraud. The United States and other nations urged Gbagbo to step down after the stalemate set off a surge of violence in Ivory Coast.

Davis said he advised the embassy that Gbagbo had to leave immediately. Publicly, he said otherwise. In a news release Davis issued just after he was hired, he said, “I urge the international community to avoid a rush to judgment until all the facts regarding the November 28 election are fairly evaluated — a position that offers the best chance to avoid bloodshed and to achieve peace and stability.”

As Gbagbo remained defiant and criticism of Davis’s role mounted on the Internet, Davis said he was prepared to walk away. But, he said, a high-ranking State Department official, Donald Yamamoto, privately encouraged him to stay on the job to facilitate a phone call from Obama to offer Gbagbo asylum. The call never took place. Still, Davis took some consolation when a State Department spokesman later acknowledged that Davis had been “helpful” during the crisis. Yamamoto declined to comment for this article.

Davis says he couldn’t tell the media about this “undercover” role, lest it jeopardize the State Department’s attempts to find a peaceful resolution. (Gbagbo was subsequently arrested and faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.)

“One thing I learned is never, ever mislead the press,” Davis says. “I spent a week misleading every reporter about what I was doing. I had the naive belief that this would be easy to accomplish, it would all work out and I would have served a good cause. . . . I was more than naive. I was stupid.”

In hindsight, Davis says he should have said no to Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast when they first approached him. “Did I make a misjudgment? Yes,” he says. “But were my motives correct in terms of really wanting to do good?” He answers the question himself: yes.

As for Snyder and the Redskins, Davis says he’s both a fan and a professional adviser. He’s been attending home games since 1970 and says that he “proudly” sings “Hail to the Redskins.”

“My advice to Dan Snyder [on the name issue] was simple: Speak,” he says. “Let people know what you think. His letter was the ultimate expression of that.”

That’s what Lanny Davis says. Let’s not call it spin.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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