Lanny Davis, Pro Bono Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 1998; Page D01
Lanny Davis measures his words carefully, more deliberately than he does during the nightly cable gabfests on which he has become a familiar fixture.
He knows the question everyone is asking -- not just of him, seven months after he left the White House counsel's office, but of all his former colleagues who defended President Clinton until his story about Monica Lewinsky turned out to be a lie.
"I don't like what he did," Davis says in his newly furnished Patton, Boggs & Blow office on M Street. "I don't like the impact on Hillary, who is my friend. I certainly think it was terribly wrong. I feel very badly for her and for the whole structure of family and friends he has injured here. But I don't think I feel any worse than he does. I finally talked to him. He's not a happy camper."
And what about the impact on Davis, the glib corporate lawyer whose very name has become synonymous with ceaseless White House spin?
"I feel very disappointed in his judgment and his failure to protect the legacy of his presidency," Davis says. "That's where my emotion is. I distinguish those feelings from other feelings of betrayal, anger, fill-in-the-blank," which he denies harboring. But, he adds, well aware that people view him skeptically, "no one seems to accept that. Most journalists say you're just trying to protect him again."
Lanny Davis is inescapable these days. He's live on "Rivera Live" and "Larry King Live," crossing swords on "Crossfire," showing up on "The Big Show" and the Sunday shows, the man who soldiers on in Clinton's defense when no one else will report for duty. On Aug. 17, the day the president admitted misleading the country about his affair with Lewinsky, Davis blabbed away on NBC and MSNBC and CNBC from morning till night. He refused a $2,500 payment, directing it to his wife's favorite cause, a newsletter for pet adoption.
The irony is that Davis is far more of a television presence than during his White House stint, when his bosses rarely let him near a camera. He's become a minor celebrity, with people stopping him in airports. Some friends -- including the reporters he assiduously courted as a Clinton aide -- say he's having the time of his life. Davis's not inconsiderable ego loves the limelight.
But to hear Davis spin it -- and he knows how to defuse opposition arguments -- his talking-head campaign is the highest form of self-sacrifice. "People say, 'Aren't you self-promoting and self-aggrandizing?' It has hurt my law practice and hurt my family life and hurt my income."
Inside the White House, Davis generally urged his colleagues to release documents, help reporters confirm stories and get beyond the bad news. What's more, he often engaged in preemptive leaks of information damaging to Clinton so the president's aides could put their own stamp on the revelations and later dismiss them as old news. But some staffers viewed Davis as a loose cannon, and tight-lipped lawyers such as counsel Charles Ruff usually prevailed.
Davis offered his latest advice during his Aug. 21 phone conversation with Clinton, telling him to release the transcript of his Lewinsky testimony, provide a narrative to a print reporter, have an unscripted talk with a television anchor. "You need to be the Bill Clinton connecting with the American people again, not a defendant under the advice of lawyers," he recalls telling the president. But there is zero indication that his old boss will take that advice.
So Davis does what he can, checking in with White House aides during the day and working the chat circuit by night. And that puts the raspy-voiced attorney in the middle of some high-decibel debates.
"I used to feel unclean sometimes," Davis says. "I would come home at night very depressed and feel like taking a shower. I'd be in a studio with a whole bunch of people engaged in food-fight shouting matches. I just felt diminished."
During last year's White House Christmas party, Lanny Davis and his wife, Carolyn, walked with the president from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden as Davis broke the news that he was quitting.
He illustrated the first reason by pointing to Carolyn's very pregnant belly. The second reason, he assured Clinton, is that "all the bad stuff is behind us."
For the briefest of moments, it seemed to be. Davis's main job during his 13-month tenure was responding to charges of improper fund-raising by the Clinton-Gore campaign, and that seemed to be petering out. (Davis was a single-scandal man; "I don't do Paula Jones," he liked to say.) The president once scribbled him a note -- "Someone has to take the flak" -- in recognition of his role.
But 10 days before he left his suite in the Old Executive Office Building, the Lewinsky story broke. And Davis felt "guilty," he says, for jumping ship. So he continued to represent what he still calls his client before the jury of public opinion. He attacked independent counsel Kenneth Starr -- sometimes too harshly, he now admits -- dismissed the latest media speculation and urged everyone to wait for the facts.
Davis's connection to the Clintons is personal as well as professional. The son of a Jersey City dentist, he became friendly with Hillary Rodham Clinton at Yale Law School, and stayed in touch when he became a political activist (and lost a 1976 congressional race in Montgomery County). After working for Michael Dukakis in 1988, Davis concluded that the Republicans had a permanent lock on the White House. He says without embarrassment that Bill Clinton saved the Democratic Party.
The attraction was so great that Davis gave up his $725,000-a-year partner's perch at Patton, Boggs in late 1996 to join the Clinton spin squad.
Davis practiced what he cleverly calls "good spin," or giving reporters even embarrassing facts and then making an advocate's case. "Bad spin is when you're deceptive, manipulative, engaging in half-truths," he says. Of course, Davis sometimes spun himself into gray areas, such as insisting that the famous White House coffees were not fund-raisers when their sole purpose was to raise cash. Even Davis didn't believe that particular line. A New Republic cover soon depicted him as a whirling dervish.
But Davis has a way of ingratiating himself with critics; even many conservatives like him. "He comes across as quite credible because he always looks slightly pained when he defends the president," says Tucker Carlson of the Weekly Standard. "He looks earnest but also uncomfortable. He's had a terrible case to argue."
Other former White House aides, principally Dee Dee Myers and George Stephanopoulos, have been far more critical of Clinton's handling of the Monica mess. "He's predictable," Myers says of Davis. "Everyone knows what he's going to say, but he always makes very good factual points. . . . Everyone grapples with the concept of loyalty. Lanny's more reflexively loyal than I am."
The question still nags: How can Davis still respect a president who let him lie? "Once he made a decision early on that he did not acknowledge the legitimacy of this inquiry and wasn't going to tell the truth about it, he had no choice but to let us do what we were doing," Davis says. "He heard us saying things he knew weren't truthful. He must have been very, very uncomfortable about that."
Davis had his doubts, of course, from the moment he watched Clinton's shaky denial to Jim Lehrer of an affair with the former intern. "I hoped the distinction he was making would turn out to be defensible," says Davis. "I knew something had gone on that he was embarrassed about. I had myself thoroughly convinced that it hadn't gone as far as a sexual relationship."
Why, then, did he never own up to those doubts? "I don't argue my clients' vulnerabilities," he says with a litigator's practiced patter.
Davis's new client list sounds, well, less exciting than his White House work. He represents the Beauty and Barber Supply Institute, Ritz Camera, and Indian tribes battling for California casinos. He's a registered lobbyist for Pakistan and Turkey. He says he's had trouble bringing in new business because potential clients worry about his close identification with the administration (though he concedes this can also be an asset). Mostly, though, Davis sounds weary. He twice shows off framed photos of his 5-month-old son, Joshua, and his 4-month-old grandson by a daughter from his first marriage. He says he urges TV bookers to seek out other spokesmen -- hours before rushing to join Geraldo Rivera.
On one subject, Davis does not attempt to spin. He knows his credibility has taken a hit. "People come up to me and say, 'Who can believe you anymore?' That bothers me greatly. It bothers me more than anything."
Not long ago, Davis was whining to White House aide Paul Begala: "I can't do this anymore. It's killing me at home. I'm exhausted, my law practice is suffering."
He still recalls Begala's response: "You're like a Japanese soldier they find in a cave who's still fighting World War II 20 years later."
An ordinary person might regard that as a sign that he's somewhat off his rocker. To Lanny Davis, it was a compliment.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company