By Lloyd Grove and David Segal
After enduring months of criticism from fellow members of the bar over his handling of the Paula Jones case, the president's personal lawyer was savoring victory Wednesday night with a celebratory dinner at the Palm.
But then, because this is Washington -- a "crummy town" of "back-stabbers and second-guessers," as Bennett's ally James Carville said yesterday on NBC's "Today" show -- the happy tableau was shattered when a man from a neighboring table approached Bennett and began shouting abuse at the top of his lungs.
"Choke on your food, sir, and wallow in the consequences of choking!" the nattily dressed man bellowed at Bennett in his banquette, where the lawyer had been tucking into a thick steak with his wife, Ellen. "How can you defend that trash?"
Bennett's tormentor -- who later identified himself as Louis J. Nicholas, 59, the chief executive officer of a Baltimore-based health insurance provider -- then exited the restaurant. But not before shrieking at an intervening waiter: "I'll . . . I'll . . . decapitate you!"
With Jones's sexual harassment suit against President Clinton summarily dismissed, it seemed that nothing could dampen the mood of the normally volatile lawyer, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
"How do you think he really feels about me?" Bennett quipped.
After all, he'd won -- and Washington loves a winner.
"Second-guessing and back-stabbing are part of the nature of this place," Carville said yesterday, elaborating on his "Today" show remarks. "But if you win, you're a genius."
Bennett, Wednesday's genius, basked quietly in his triumph. "I feel great, and I feel very good for the client," he said in muted tones. "You feel very good when your strategy works. You're happy about it."
And the legal community -- which until recently was a den of carping kibitzers -- for the most part echoed Bennett's good opinion of himself.
"He adopted the Yogi Berra approach of 'It ain't over till it's over,' and the naysayers who said Bennett is a bad boy are eating crow -- at least for the moment," said Joseph Cammarata, who represented plaintiff Jones until last fall, when they parted over the issue of settling the suit -- something he wanted to do but she did not.
"Bennett is a zealous advocate and a formidable opponent," Cammarata continued, "even though some of his comments throughout the course of the case might have been more artfully put" -- a reference to Bennett's not-too-veiled threat in September to put Jones's sexual history under the microscope.
"It's a tremendous victory for not only his client but for him," said Washington lawyer Randall Turk. "I think in part it goes to show that second-guessing and criticizing another lawyer's strategy or tactics is always dangerous, not only because you don't know what the lawyer knows but because every case has its ups and downs."
Among the "downs": the Supreme Court decision last summer to allow the Jones trial to go forward, the president's historic deposition in which he was grilled by Jones's attorneys about alleged extramarital affairs and, more recently, independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of Clinton's relationships with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and ex-White House aide Kathleen Willey and whether the president or his allies ever encouraged them to lie.
"This case became a lightning rod for issues and agendas that certainly went beyond what Paula Jones thought Clinton had done," said Washington attorney Tom Green. "There are always unforeseen developments and always instances of fallout when you aggressively resist allegations of this nature. It's not Bob's fault that those things materialized."
Still, lawyers being lawyers, some were eager to fix blame.
"I don't think the win will have any great effect on Bennett's reputation," said prominent New York trial lawyer Gerald Lefcourt, "because there are so many problems that came from this -- and the decision doesn't erase all those problems. Bennett was part of a group of people who allowed this silly little case to hobble the president. I can't imagine he walks away with a hero's mantle after this."
Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, telephoning from Turkey, stood by his earlier vow to dissect Bennett's handling of the lawsuit next semester "as a case study in erroneous decision-making."
"Clinton would have been better off by settling or defaulting and not having a criminal investigation surrounding Monica Lewinsky," Dershowitz asserted. "Bennett may have sacrificed the war to win the battle."
Bennett coolly countered his critics. "Hindsight is a goddamn perfect science, especially when practiced by people who don't know the facts and don't have the responsibility for the decision-making," he said unflappably. "Alan Dershowitz should stick to teaching school."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company