Hill Veterans Light the Way for Nominee

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

Shortly after President George H.W. Bush nominated him for the Supreme Court in July 1991, Clarence Thomas went to a downtown Washington office to take part in strategy sessions aimed at ensuring his confirmation by the Senate.

The presiding political mind was not a top White House aide or a legal eagle from the Justice Department but lobbyist Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former Reagan administration official who was Thomas's designated "sherpa" -- his guide through the potentially treacherous process.

Duberstein, then and now, is one of a handful of Washington figures who have acquired reputations for steering top presidential nominees through a confirmation process that has grown more contentious and partisan since the unprecedented campaign that capsized Judge Robert H. Bork's Supreme Court nomination in 1987.

The role of the sherpa, named for the Tibetan guides who assist climbers in the Himalayas, is largely off camera and unpaid. It is a critical and routine part of the Washington odyssey that high-profile nominees go through on their way to the high court or top Cabinet posts.

When John G. Roberts Jr. was nominated by President Bush in July to be an associate justice, he was promptly provided with two guides: former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. Both are considered savvy Washington insiders who are now comfortably on the outside. After the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist last week, Bush nominated Roberts to lead the court.

Roberts has not faced anything like the opposition Bork did. Democrats say they will press him harder at his confirmation hearings beginning Monday now that he is in line to be chief.

"There are several roles you play," said Duberstein, who also served as a guide for Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, CIA Director Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. "You are the chief strategist for the ultimate goal of getting that person confirmed. You are also the traffic cop, because everybody wants to see the prospective nominee. You are a coach and you're also a confidant of the nominee. You are the chief liaison with the Hill, but also the chief liaison within the administration. You are an enforcer, but you are also a negotiator."

Duberstein said the job of guiding Roberts should not change because he has been nominated for chief justice. "I don't recall that there would be any distinction," he said.

The sherpa is very much the media messenger -- shaping and selling a nominee's personal story and image, devising strategies for dealing with reporters, and coordinating courtesy calls with key senators.

"They'll school you on what to say and what not to say," said Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University. "They are kind of a sounding board for you, and whenever you have one of those anxiety attacks . . . they are counselors for you. And if you get into trouble, you get a 'hold' placed on you, then they'll help you iron it out."

Sherpas tap their sources on Capitol Hill to learn about tough questions a nominee might face, and then drill nominees in mock confirmation hearings known as "murder boards." They even coach them on such matters as how long to pause before answering a senator's question and how to ask for a bathroom break.

But this is a complex process, and even the helper needs help. Sherpas supervise teams that vet a nominee's financial statements, personal history and professional record -- trolling for red flags.

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