Bob Bennett, Making His Case
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 28, 1998; Page D01
After the Supreme Court ruled last May that President Clinton could be sued for sexual harassment while in office, his personal attorney issued a stern warning to plaintiff Paula Corbin Jones.
"As my mother once said to me, be careful what you ask for -- you may get it," Robert S. Bennett said on NBC's "Meet the Press," one of the myriad venues -- from Don Imus's radio show to the highest court in the land -- where he has defended his coveted client for the past 3 1/2 years. "I had a dog like that, who just wanted to catch cars. And he successfully caught one one day. And I have a new dog."
The lawyer's blunt-force analogy -- suggesting that Clinton's accuser would not survive an examination of her sexual history -- was widely viewed in political circles as a serious gaffe, another misstep in a series that Bennett's critics claim he has committed in the case. After howls of protest from women's groups and a legion of newspaper editorialists, the president's lawyer quickly retreated.
But the cautionary tale about a car-chasing canine may now apply to the 58-year-old Bennett himself. He certainly got what he asked for -- the First Client -- and has been entrusted with the job of ridding the president of this troublesome lawsuit. As a result, Bennett enjoys nearly the celebrity of his younger brother Bill, the former education secretary.
But under Bennett's stewardship, his detractors argue, the Jones case has grown from a minor irritant to a crippling presidential distraction, leading directly to the harrowing allegations involving a 24-year-old former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Once seen through the prism of his numerous press clippings as a rare combination of legal smarts, political acumen and public relations savvy, he's now the object of brutal criticism. The question is whether Bennett, like his dog, will end up road kill.
You can almost hear the sound of the gleeful rubbing together of hands. Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, the nation's foremost legal kibitzer, vowed this week to dissect Bennett's handling of the suit, which alleges that Clinton propositioned Jones in a Little Rock hotel room when he was governor of Arkansas, as part of a course on ethics and tactics he'll teach next fall.
"Tragically, this is going to go down in history as a case study in erroneous decision-making," Dershowitz said. "Bennett turned a political problem into a legal nightmare. This may be the first time in history that a president is subject to impeachment because of missteps by his attorney."
Bennett, who on a recent afternoon was red-eyed, coughing and wheezing, and looking even more rumpled than usual -- an ink blot staining the monogrammed pocket of his unpressed blue shirt -- declined to be interviewed on the record. But this attorney with the physique of a cannonball couldn't resist firing back at the author of "Chutzpah."
"As usual, Professor Dershowitz does not know what he's talking about," Bennett said. "But I am sure, if there is a successful outcome to this case, he will find some way to take credit. He just doesn't know anything about what decisions were made and what discussions took place with the client. It's reckless and irresponsible on his part."
Bennett lobbied hard for the president's legal business -- which was supposed to have been the capstone to a brilliant career successfully representing the powerful and well connected, everyone from gray eminence Clark Clifford to former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger to Clinton intimate Harry Thomason.
The television producer retained Bennett in the White House travel office investigation and later recommended him to the president. "A lot of it is skillful lawyering and excellent networking," said Thomason, who credits Bennett with getting him cleared in the affair, "and the fact that he's got a highly motivated backup team behind him."
Into the Breach
Clinton ultimately hired Bennett in the spring of 1994, brushing aside the lawyer's offer to waive his usual $475-an-hour fee. In Bennett, the president picked a lawyer who seemed ready-made for the job.
First, Clinton needed an attorney to keep him out of court -- Bennett's principal expertise. Bennett, who started out in the 1960s as a federal prosecutor but now seldom goes to trial, has been the "go-to" attorney for politicians in trouble because of his gift for private dealmaking. He's renowned as a born negotiator who can bully, bluff and backslap opposing counsel into arrangements that keep his clients out of jail and headlines.
Second, the president -- and especially his wife -- wanted a lawyer who could defend Clinton in the court of public opinion while putting distance between the lawsuit and the presidency. With his flair for pithy sound bites and his love of schmoozing the press, Bennett seemed perfectly positioned for this role.
Third, Bennett was the quintessential Washington insider and a peerless political networker, a lawyer who could drum up support for the president both inside and outside the Beltway.
But things haven't worked out that way. Instead of disposing of the lawsuit, the president was compelled to spend six hours in Bennett's office on Jan. 17 being deposed under oath by Jones's lawyers about his sex life -- a situation without historical precedent.
Last week, the case erupted into a full-blown Washington scandal, complete with a criminal investigation of the president by independent counsel Kenneth Starr -- precisely the sort of outcome Bennett was hired to avoid.
On Monday, trying to minimize his client's exposure to the toxic fallout from the Jones case -- notably the controversy surrounding Lewinsky, who surfaced after she was subpoenaed by Jones's lawyers -- Bennett formally asked U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to move up the date of the sexual harassment trial. Until now, he had sought aggressively to delay it. His first priority had been to prevent the suit from going forward until after Clinton's 1996 reelection -- a goal Bennett achieved.
In Washington and beyond, Bennett's colleagues are reluctant to criticize him publicly; after all, they may have to work with him someday. But various naysayers in recent days have voiced a litany of complaints about Bennett's performance. They fault him for allowing the president to give a sworn deposition. While the legal system offers everyone the presumption of innocence, these critics said, a good lawyer figures that his client is guilty and builds a strategy around worst-case scenarios. In this instance, that scenario was predictable: Clinton getting grilled about other women under oath.
Dershowitz advised: "Clinton could have said, 'I default, I'm not going to contest these charges, I'm too busy' " -- a prescription a Bennett partisan called "absolutely crazy. . . . Can you imagine the reaction if the president defaulted with a $2 million judgment against him and an admission of guilt? You guys in the press would have poured gasoline all over him and then lit the match."
Bennett's critics said his continual public pronouncements, in which he tossed brickbats at Jones and others, have served to minimize the possibility of a settlement and may have created other, graver problems. After Bennett publicly attacked the veracity of former White House staffer Linda Tripp last summer, Tripp was advised to record her conversations with Lewinsky -- the tapes that are the basis of Starr's new investigation.
Moreover, argued Gerald Lefcourt, president of the National Association of Criminal Lawyers, it's all but impossible to cut a deal in private while hectoring your opponents in public. "If I want to settle a case, I say nothing publicly," Lefcourt said. "You go public when there's a war."
The Defense Team
Bennett's defenders scoffed at such complaints, pointing out that he has acted at all times in close consultation with the Clintons and their cadre of advisers.
"Isn't this business as usual in Washington -- second-guessing and sniping by lawyers?" said Carl Rauh, Bennett's longtime friend and partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. "Bob is a great lawyer and he's poured his guts out in this case to represent his client as effectively and ably as he can."
Said Mitchell Ettinger, another Skadden, Arps partner who is working on the lawsuit, "He has placed the president in a tremendous position to prevail in the Paula Jones case, whether it be by summary judgment or at trial." In addition, Ettinger noted that Bennett doesn't have a free hand. "Legal pundits with 20/20 hindsight can wish all they might about what could have been done or should have been done," he said. "The people with the greatest insight with respect to the political issues were consulted at every turn. Bob Bennett did not make these decisions by himself."
Bennett's defenders include some of the most influential players around the president. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for one, offered unsolicited praise for the beleaguered lawyer. "I have the highest respect for Bob Bennett and I very much appreciate the excellent representation he is giving my husband," she said in a statement.
"He's done a superb job for the president," said White House counsel Charles Ruff. "The wonderful thing about lawyers . . . is that we're all artists. We all believe that this or that brush stroke should be somewhere else, that we could paint the picture better. So I would not, from my perspective, give too much credence to the criticism."
Such is Bennett's clout -- and the White House's determination to present a united front -- that even the press-averse David Kendall, the president's other personal attorney, went on the record to show his solidarity.
"I will say Bob is a fine lawyer, that we represent the same client on different matters and that any allegations of personal conflict are simply untrue," said Kendall, who was hired in 1993 to handle Whitewater and other problems arising from the independent counsel's investigation. By most accounts, Kendall -- who is circumspect where Bennett is brash -- dissented from the president's choice of attorneys for the Jones suit.
Several knowledgeable sources said the two lawyers have been a less than perfect fit professionally -- the tight-lipped Kendall not comfortable showing his cards to the blustery Bennett. Last weekend, former commerce secretary Mickey Kantor, a prominent Los Angeles attorney, arrived to ride herd on the White House's legal and political strategies in the scandal -- attempting to lend a coherence they have heretofore lacked.
The Spin Goes On
"Bob Bennett was hired to make sure nothing bad happened to the president," said a lawyer who has worked against Bennett. "The president's needs as a client are primarily political, and sometimes as a lawyer you've just got to solve problems. I can't imagine that the consensus in Washington is: 'Damn, he sure has done a good job for the president!' "
Joseph Cammarata and Gil Davis, Jones's lawyers at the time, attempted to sell the proposal to their client. If she had agreed, Bennett would have presented it to Clinton as a starting point. But under the influence of her new adviser, conservative activist Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Jones balked, demanding a stronger apology and more money. In due course Cammarata and Davis bowed out of the case, and were replaced by Jones's current Dallas-based legal team, paid for by the conservative Rutherford Institute.
Since then, according to sources, Bennett has had fitful talks with Jones's lead attorney, Donovan Campbell -- most recently about six weeks ago in Richmond, where U.S. District Judge Robert Merhige Jr. attempted to mediate a deal. The negotiations collapsed, sources said, after Campbell demanded that Clinton apologize for his "inappropriate" behavior with Jones, read his apology at a news conference and pay Jones around $2 million.
Meanwhile, on Dec. 5, according to sources, Bennett learned about Lewinsky for the first time when her name appeared on a plaintiff's witness list that included a dozen other women. Bennett had her vetted, along with other women on the list, and received her sworn affidavit denying any affair with the president. The lawyer and his associates thought the Lewinsky problem was solved.
But people on both sides of the Jones controversy said Bennett shouldn't be held responsible for the current scandal.
"I'm not going to blame this one on Bennett, though there's no love lost between him and me," said Carpenter-McMillan, noting that he playfully stuck his tongue out at her last summer. "You can't make him the fall guy for the whole tone over at the White House. It's not just Bennett, it's [White House adviser Paul] Begala, it's [political consultant James] Carville, it's Hillary, it's the whole way they try to destroy anybody who comes after them."
And former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, now an ABC News commentator who has been searingly critical of the president, stoutly defended the president's lawyer.
"How can you blame Bob for the fact that Paula Jones wants to make millions of dollars off this case?" he demanded. "He's up against a loose press and an unscrupulous opposition. . . . In the end, unfortunately, what matters is what happens outside of the courtroom. That's where this case is being litigated -- on 'Imus' and 'Geraldo.' "
These days the president's lawyer is taking his lumps. But he hasn't lost his sense of fun -- or his knack for spin. Late last week, as the scandal was exploding, this message was left on a reporter's voice mail: "This is an anonymous caller. I just want you to know that I think Bob Bennett is without doubt the finest trial lawyer in the history of this country. He is doing a brilliant job for President Clinton and I hope someday you write an article emphasizing the contribution he has made to America's general well-being."
The caller was Bennett. He was joking. Of course.
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