Page 5 of 5   <      

Washington lawyer Bob Barnett is the force behind many political book deals

Barnett epitomizes a certain fragile quality of the Washington establishment that some say is vanishing. He may be the last avatar.

"I've found that people on the polar opposite ends of the political spectrum actually have more in common personally and politically than we know or they know," Barnett says. "Unfortunately, because of the diminution -- if not the absence -- of socializing, because of the party discipline in the legislative branch, the need to raise incalculable sums of money and the existence of 24-hour cable, the comity and the productivity that used to be -- and could be again -- has been eliminated."

Williams, one of Barnett's idols, believed every person deserved a good lawyer. He represented Mafia bosses, disgraced politicians, Washington power brokers of all stripes.

Barnett draws a line. He doesn't think every author deserves Bob Barnett as a literary lawyer.

"I've turned down many of the purveyors of hate," he says, declining to identify them.

Why does he not extend his customary professional agnosticism to this cohort? "Because I've got a child who I love and hopefully she loves me, and I want her to be proud of her daddy," Barnett says.

* * *

"Barnett did not need to know the identity of Deep Throat, and I didn't tell him. I said the person, who was now very elderly, seemed to be on the verge of agreeing that his identity could or should be released publicly. Should that story be told before his death? And if so, how? . . . Given his years navigating the shoals of Washington politics, he sees angles that I would not imagine."

-- "The Secret Man," by Bob Woodward

Follow the money.

Barnett's rate of $975 an hour is a lot of money, but his transformational insight was to apply a lawyer's fee structure to the work of an agent. Then it's not necessarily so much money.

A traditional literary agent charges 15 percent of an advance. Barnett helped Bill Clinton sell "My Life" for a record $15 million. Clinton would have paid an agent $2.25 million; Barnett says he put in far fewer hours than the 2,308 he would have needed to work to bill $2.25 million.

His clients can do the math. "For someone like me, the savings are extraordinary," author Patterson says.

Barnett's system works only for clients who command big advances. "I think under his model some of my clients would be bankrupt," says Gail Ross of the Gail Ross Literary Agency in Washington, which has represented Christine Todd Whitman, Francis Collins, Michele Norris.

Ross says she may work upward of 75 hours on a client's project. At Barnett's rates, that would be $73,000. If Ross's author gets a $100,000 advance, Ross's 15 percent would be $15,000.

"He does a certain kind of book extraordinarily well," Ross says. "I love my $1 million books, but I also love my $100,000 books."

Publishers maintain that Barnett deserves neither the credit nor the blame for the seeming inflation in high-profile Washington memoirs. "A market price is a market price," says David Young, chairman of the Hachette Book Group, whose subsidiary publishes Patterson.

Although a few books have been "disappointing . . . with Bob you never feel you've been hoodwinked," says Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster, whose Threshold Editions is rolling out Rove's and Cheney's books. "You feel you did it to yourself. You were enamored with the fairy dust of the author as opposed to Bob."

Peter Osnos, founder of PublicAffairs Books, has done deals with Barnett, but he does not admire the money-soaked system in which Barnett is a player, because he thinks it monetizes public service. "Publishers are increasingly the enablers of wealth for people who manage to get elected," Osnos says. "You can't say it's Bob's fault, but he sure as hell is at the center of it."

Barnett says that if a politician sells a book while in office, the proceeds are disclosed. If the public servant is out of office, "the person is a private citizen. They have the right to make a deal, they have the right to have a job, they have the right to sell a book. . . . Therein lies a marketplace, therein lies fair bargaining.

* * *

"Bob Barnett met with me in the Yellow Oval Room to talk over some unrelated business and, as a friend, to see how I was holding up. After we'd finished, Bob asked me if I was worried. 'No,' I said. 'I'm just sorry all of us have to endure this.'

Then Bob said, 'What if there's more to this than you know?'

'I don't believe there is. I've asked Bill over and over again.'

'But,' Bob continued, 'you have to face the fact that something about this might be true.' "

-- "Living History," by Hillary Rodham Clinton

The care and feeding of a wide spectrum of friends, who themselves may be bitter political enemies, while also guarding a complicated trove of confidences, may be Barnett's signature legacy.

He works hard at it. Clients in time zones from London to Wasilla, Alaska, speak of having their phone calls and e-mails returned within 30 minutes.

He is said to be relentlessly cheerful, calm when others panic. When Meredith Barnett was asked in nursery school to make a picture of her parents, she drew Rita Braver in a power suit and Bob Barnett in pajamas.

He gets animated when he describes his non-power-Washington books, like the forthcoming memoir by prison journalist and convicted killer Wilbert Rideau and the memoirs of Pat Summitt, legendary coach of the University of Tennessee women's basketball team, a rare project Barnett pursued because he thought she could inspire women like his daughter and niece.

But Washington is his town.

There's a reading of Washington which holds that people come here with convictions but lose them through compromise. The view has been around for as long as candidates have positioned themselves to run "against" Washington, and it is vibrant today.

There's an alternative view that gridlock over important issues is one result of perhaps too much conviction. "Would that Washington politics in general worked as well as Bob Barnett does," Patterson says. "When all the politicking is done, he sits down and gets the job done."

<                5

© 2010 The Washington Post Company