A Powerful Tribute to A Lawyer and A Gentleman

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, left, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer share a chuckle during one of the tributes to Lloyd Cutler.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, left, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer share a chuckle during one of the tributes to Lloyd Cutler. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The poetic setting for Lloyd Cutler's memorial service would have been a courtroom. Or maybe the Oval Office. Possibly a classroom. But the number of people who loved and respected the consummate lawyer number in the thousands, so the law firm he founded rented out Constitution Hall yesterday. Family, friends and colleagues -- hundreds from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr -- gathered at the historic hall to bid farewell to a Washington legend.

"He was something special," public policy scholar Norm Ornstein said before the service. "The combination of talents! Smart as could be, knew everybody and everything, an incredible knowledge of the Constitution and the law, down to earth, and a passion for making the country and politics better. He made this town . . . more humane and advanced the interests of the nation."

And he loved fine food, great wine and delicious gossip. "Consummate" is the adjective of his life. Quite possibly he was the perfect Washington man.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton led the tributes at the two-hour memorial. Earlier in the day, a long list of boldface names gathered at Christ Church in Georgetown in a smaller memorial service to praise his life and legacy.

"Lloyd Cutler was a decent and wise man," said Gonzales, who told the Constitution Hall audience that he didn't know him well, "but, like you, I went to him when I needed help."

All the stories, all the praise boiled down to this: Cutler, who died May 8 at the age of 87, personified the "lawyer-statesman." It's an old-fashioned term from the Washington of decades ago, when being part of the city's permanent establishment of lawyers, thinkers and problem-solvers was a noble profession. Before "inside the Beltway" was a pejorative, before "lawyer" was a punch line, men like Cutler came to the nation's capital because they believed their country wanted and needed them.

He was, of course, an idealist. He believed in truth, justice and word as bond. He taught young lawyers the importance of law in public policy, government and democracy. His oft-repeated motto was "Don't just do well -- do good." He founded the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Southern Africa Legal Services and Legal Education Project. He co-chaired the Committee on the Revision of the Czechoslovak Constitution. He was a teacher and mentor to thousands.

Cutler's great skill was to calmly set aside politics and tackle problems. "He wanted it -- whatever 'it' was -- to work and work well," Breyer said at both memorials. That meant following conscience instead of clients, identifying the issues at hand, and finding a way to make it work for everyone.

"He was a lawyer for strategy rather than the particular client," said ABC News President David Westin, who was part of the VIP crowd in the audience at Constitution Hall. "He was not blindly partisan."

Cutler moved seamlessly between the public and private sectors. He graduated from Yale at age 18, came from New York to Washington after the attack at Pearl Harbor, founded his firm after the war. He was an adviser to six presidents and White House counsel to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who ordered his staff to "get me someone like Lloyd Cutler" until it dawned on Clinton to ask Cutler himself to reenter the fray of presidential politics during the Whitewater crisis. "Get me Lloyd Cutler," the president ordered his staff, and they did.

One of Cutler's last projects, co-chairing the Continuity of Government Commission, was to determine how the government could constitutionally proceed if a large percentage of Congress was killed in a terrorist attack.

"He was so devoted to our system of government and our Constitution," remembered Sen. Clinton earlier in the day. "To the idea that reasonable people could solve any human problem if they worked together in good faith."

"First and foremost, he was a lawyer," said Vernon Jordan, another lawyer and presidential adviser. "He was the best of the best."

But he was more than a lawyer, of course. He was husband to Polly Kraft, father to four children and eight grandchildren, friend, neighbor and opera lover. "Things always seemed more manageable when Lloyd was around," said stepson David Stevens. "He was fully the man he appeared to be."

Jordan, Strobe Talbott, Gerald Rafshoon, George Stevens and Gahl Burt were some of the 13 ushers at the morning service in Georgetown. A stream of Washington luminaries filtered in to pay their respects: Breyer, Sen. Clinton, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, British Ambassador David Manning, Rep. Jane Harman and former senators Howard Baker and Chuck Robb, C. Boyden Gray, William Webster, Jim Wolfensohn, Jim Johnson, and a number of media pals including Westin, Ben Bradlee, Jim Lehrer, Margaret Carlson, Al Hunt, Don Graham, George Stephanopoulos and Leon Wieseltier, who recited the kaddish.

The organ played softly in the silence of the church, and birdsong trilled from the garden next door. Sunlight streamed from the stained-glass windows onto the stone arches. Then a cell phone went off, reminding everyone they were, in fact, in the Washington of 2005.

Cutler's son, daughters and sisters remembered him as a loving father and precocious sibling with a weakness for silly poems by Ogden Nash. Friend and partner Louis Cohen said he was wonderful company: "He was the only person on Earth that I looked forward to taking long plane rides with," which may be the greatest compliment of the day.

"Although there'll never be another Lloyd Cutler," said Sen. Clinton, "let's hope there are many more like him."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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