By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005
Karl Rove's greatest defender in Washington these days is a Democratic lawyer and onetime newspaper reporter named Robert Luskin. He is Rove's attorney in the high-stakes CIA leak case, and is widely credited with sparing his client from indictment so far.
But perhaps more intriguing is Luskin's other role. He plays the Anti-Rove.
Just look at the guy: Luskin, 55, wears a gold hoop earring and Euro-hip eyeglasses. He's buff and bald. (But bald in a good way.) He rides a black Ducati Monster motorcycle, which its maker touts as the bike of choice of "top designers" and "Hollywood stars." In his office he spins the CDs of antiwar balladeer Steve Earle and ex-punk Paul Westerberg.
Rove, the pudgy uber-operative also known as Bush's Brain, helped put a brush-clearing conservative Christian into the White House by bad-mouthing the liberal elites of this world -- people just like Luskin.
So how is it that a man of somewhat Neiman-Marxist tastes, a self-described liberal on social issues, became the potential rescuer of Rove, whom many on the left are salivating to see frog-marched from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?
If you have to ask, say observers of the Rove-Luskin alliance, then you obviously haven't been in Washington very long.
"Bob Luskin is the perfect person for Rove," says Lanny Davis, a Clinton White House damage-control veteran and Luskin's former law partner at Patton Boggs, the power firm where Luskin plies his trade. "He is one of the few lawyers I know who gets it."
By that he means Luskin knows how to do the sharp lawyering required to wage a strong criminal defense -- all the while nudging reporters toward his position, attempting to soften public perception of Rove and getting out his client's side of the story.
Having worked in Washington for a quarter-century, and spending part of the Clinton years as a scandal attorney, Luskin has seen it all before. "Same plot, different characters," he says of the investigative dramas, such as the Valerie Plame outing case, that periodically grip Washington.
"Many lawyers are, media-wise, brain-dead," declares Davis, who served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton. "Bob gets how to be a lawyer and communicate effectively. Lawyers cannot operate just by no-commenting anymore."
And so it is that we find ourselves in Luskin's sunny corner office on the outskirts of Georgetown, listening to him comment. For three hours. It's never dull: There are stories about covering a '60s student revolt at Harvard; his stint as a speechwriter on Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential campaign; his work cleaning up a Mafia-infested labor union; and the time he accepted payment from a client in gold bars and took heat from the feds for it.
His office decor reflects a raffish personality. On the coffee table sits a life-size articulated wooden hand, the kind figure-drawing students use, with its middle finger upraised. The words "Free Karl!" are scrawled in chalk on a slate clock hanging on the wall above his desk. (A flourish added by his colleagues, Luskin says.)
For those who've managed to lose the plot since all this began two years ago, we offer some boilerplate: Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is probing whether White House officials disclosed the identity of CIA operative Plame to reporters as a way to discredit her husband, Iraq war foe Joseph Wilson. In October, a grand jury indicted Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for allegedly lying and obstructing justice. Rove, who is known to have talked to Time magazine's Matthew Cooper and syndicated columnist Robert Novak about Plame, was not indicted. But he remains under investigation.
The otherwise voluble Luskin clams up when the topic shifts to the latest development in the case: Time reporter Viveca Novak has agreed to provide sworn testimony about a conversation she had with . . . yes . . . Luskin. As reported last week by this newspaper, Novak -- a longtime friend of Luskin's -- is "central to White House senior adviser Karl Rove's effort to fend off an indictment in the two-year-old investigation, according to two people familiar with the situation."
Hmmm. As if this case weren't absurdly convoluted enough, now we've got two Novaks in the mix, along with all manner of attribution-cloaking devices. (Time's Novak is no relation to Robert Novak, whose 2003 column identified Plame as a CIA operative.)
Might this development be possibly favorable to Rove?
"I can't talk about it on any basis," Luskin says. "Not at all, in any way, shape or form. I'm really sorry."
But otherwise his spin is direct: Fitzgerald will ultimately conclude that "Karl didn't do anything wrong" because Rove has "the virtue of being innocent," says Luskin. Rove did not push disclosure of Plame's identity to reporters, the attorney says, or attempt to cover up his conversations with them.
To the Bush administration's foes, Rove's alleged complicity presents the possibility of divine payback. For some, the notion of the Machiavellian Rove plotting reprisals against Wilson is "the story too good not to be true," Luskin says.
"It is a much better story if he is playing a central role in this, and it is a much less interesting story if it turns out that there is no evidence to suggest, as was initially argued, that this was a White House plot to disclose the identity of a covert agent in order to punish a critic. . . .
"If folks believe they can gain political advantage by climbing up his back, they will do so."
Karl Rove, victim of attack politics? Perish the thought! At this point, the room itself is practically spinning.
* * *
Robert D. Luskin grew up in what he calls a "fairly conservative Jewish family" in Chicago, his mother a public school teacher and his father an attorney who did private labor arbitration. As a youth at the dinner table he acquired a respect for "the dignity of the working man and woman," Luskin says, and friends say he never came off as a snob, despite his intellect and accomplishments (Harvard undergrad, Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law Review).
"He spent a lot of time talking to me, and there were people who would not give you the time of day," recalls M.J. Anderson, who met Luskin in 1978 when she was a secretary at the prestigious publication. "He was one of the least conventional people on the law review when he was there." (Among Luskin's classmates and fellow law review editors: John Roberts, who would become chief justice.)
Before pursuing a law career, Luskin worked as a general-assignment reporter at the Providence Journal in the mid-1970s. (He briefly covered Washington.) He had become enamored of journalism as a Harvard freshman, back when a lot of the students -- Luskin included -- had shaggy hair and mutton chops.
Working at the school radio station, he found himself inside University Hall when 500 cops ended a takeover by protesters in April 1969: "I basically did the play-by-play of the bust while it was happening," he says. Luskin and three other student reporters secured a book contract and quickly produced "The Harvard Strike," which placed the incident into a wider context of radical politics.
"He really wanted to be a writer but didn't see a way to stay in it and make a living," says Anderson, now an editorial writer at the Providence Journal. "He ended up in law school in spite of himself."
Luskin explains: "I think I was probably getting family pressure that being a journalist was an utterly disreputable profession." He laughs heartily. "It was neither a doctor nor a lawyer and, therefore, by definition, not totally acceptable. But I loved being a reporter . . . and still miss it."
That part of his background may redound to Rove's benefit. Journalists tend to like Luskin: He's smooth and personable but manages not to come off as unctuous. Like many others in the capital's permanent scandal infrastructure, he knows fully the art of leak-and-tip, but he also has the advantage of understanding what it was like to be on the other side. He gamely calls that attribute part of his "skill set."
"I think the picture is of a very good reporter who turned out to be an ace lawyer, with a sort of humility and charm to boot. That's hard to beat," says Harvard law professor Philip B. Heymann, who served as a top Justice Department official. (On his referral, Luskin went to work for the department's organized-crime section in 1980.)
"I could easily imagine his being a friend-making, humanizing force for anybody he is representing. I've never met Rove, but he looks like he could use it."
Because of Luskin, "you think better of Karl," concurs Mark Corallo, who is handling PR for Rove and Luskin. (Even a mouthpiece needs a mouthpiece in this town.)
Luskin's résumé includes scandal experience dating back to the Abscam bribery case. He weathered some of the most subpoena-happy Hill investigations of the Clinton years -- Whitewater, Vince Foster, campaign fundraising. He earned particularly good notices in Democratic power circles when he represented a former Clinton aide named Mark Middleton in front of ravening Hill Republicans. (Rep. Dan Burton's committee linked Middleton to all manner of allegations involving the Chinese government, the Lippo Group, Charlie Trie, John Huang, Johnny Chung et al., but Middleton was never charged.)
Luskin had to do a lot of spinning for himself when the U.S. attorney in Rhode Island accused him of "willful blindness" for accepting 45 gold bars worth more than $505,000, as well as Swiss wire transfers of $169,000, for his work on the case of a precious-metals dealer convicted of laundering millions in drug money. In 1998 Luskin settled with the government, forfeiting $245,000 in fees.
Luskin says he did due diligence to assure that the money he got was legit, even if it was paid in "a somewhat unusual fashion," but now admits it looked bad. "I kind of got lost in what I thought were the legalities of the situation and didn't take a step back and say, you know, how would people regard something like this?"
* * *
Another part of Luskin lore is a historic fashion breakthrough that occurred in 1995, when he evidently became the first man to wear an earring while arguing before the Supreme Court. The Post at the time described it as a "tasteful silver stud in his left ear" and recounted the hubbub that ensued.
These days Luskin sports a barely noticeable gold hoop. "It takes next to nothing at all to vault you outside the mainstream," he says with some amusement. "It is a very strange profession, indeed."
Divorced seven years ago after a 20-year marriage, Luskin has two sons in college, a townhouse in Georgetown and a home on Martha's Vineyard. He describes himself simply as a bachelor. He's a licensed glider pilot, weightlifter and runner, and plays baseball in an over-30 league.
Predicting Rove's exoneration, he goes with a Fitzgeraldian baseball metaphor: "If Fitzgerald does what he ought to do, and what I think he will do here, it won't be because I threw him a two-strike fastball on the outside corner; it will be because it will be the right outcome on the merits. . . . It isn't the product of my particular skill or cleverness."
Washington is full of capable and loyal Republican white-shoe attorneys whom Rove could have picked. Why Luskin? Rove declined to comment, but he came to Luskin via a referral from Patton Boggs partner Ben Ginsberg, who works on the same floor as Luskin and considers him "wonderfully capable." (Ginsberg was chief outside counsel to President Bush's reelection campaign.)
Rove, according to Luskin, "made it clear that as far as he was concerned, the relevant issue for him was whether or not I had the appropriate experience and not what my politics were."
Some who know Luskin brush off any deeper meaning in Rove's counterintuitive choice. "The important part is the IQ around 200 -- that might be an exaggeration, but it wouldn't shock me if Bob were in Mensa," says W. Kenneth O'Donnell, a Providence attorney who has worked with Luskin. "The guy is brilliant. I can certainly understand why [Rove] would want him to represent him."
Because, sometimes, even Bush's Brain needs a brain.