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William Ginsburg/AP
William Ginsburg on a Sunday talk show. (AP)

As Ginsburg Broadcasts, Colleagues Air Disbelief

By Ruth Marcus and Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 2, 1998; Page A01

William H. Ginsburg, the lawyer for former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, had just finished doing his latest television interview Wednesday night when he pulled out his beeper and began reading off the latest messages from journalists beseeching him for interviews.

"Call Mike Wallace," Ginsburg recited aloud, referring to the "60 Minutes" correspondent. "My new best friend," he observed. He looked up at a reporter and added, in all apparent seriousness, "I'm the most famous person in the world."

This is the age of the lawyer as celebrity, when Court TV makes the O.J. Simpson murder trial a national obsession and Marcia Clark and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. household names. But even within this brave new legal world, Ginsburg's fame has swelled to Cochranian dimensions with lightning speed, thanks largely to the marathon media tour he has undertaken since the allegations involving Lewinsky and President Clinton surfaced Jan. 21.

In Cochran's case, the outcome was a happy one -- his client got off and the case made him not only a celebrity but the host of his own TV show. For Ginsburg, the story has yet to play out, and many are the criminal defense lawyers who say his press strategy -- both his high profile and the particular comments he has made that would appear to undermine his client's case and her credibility -- is dangerously flawed.

"I have to tell you I cannot figure out what the strategy is," said William L. Taylor III, one of Washington's leading white-collar criminal defense lawyers. "In the first place, negotiations between the defense lawyer and the prosecutor are always best conducted privately. The opportunity for misunderstanding based on comments to the media is very high. And I can't see the benefit to his client of having him discussing in the media what she says and doesn't say. . . . I think it is an unconventional approach to negotiating in a case of this importance."

Lewinsky's legal position is precarious. She submitted a sworn affidavit in the Paula Jones harassment suit against President Clinton asserting that she did not have a sexual relationship with the president -- a statement contradicted by her recorded conversations with former Pentagon colleague Linda R. Tripp, the tapes of which are now in the possession of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. In addition to facing potential perjury charges for the affidavit, Lewinsky could also face obstruction-of-justice charges arising from, among other things, the "talking points" she provided to Tripp to make in her own affidavit to the Jones lawyers and other efforts to keep Tripp from testifying in the Jones case. Since the existence of Lewinsky's tape-recorded conversations was first reported 12 days ago, Ginsburg has bounced from "Burden of Proof" to "Nightline" (twice) to "Meet the Press" (twice) to "Dateline" to "20/20," for a total of at least 13 guest appearances. The airwaves have become a virtual Ginsburg News Network, with up-to-the minute bulletins about the progress of his negotiations with Starr over whether Lewinsky should receive immunity from prosecution in return for cooperating with Starr.

And that was before yesterday, when Ginsburg -- who by his own admission hadn't yet returned a Saturday night phone call from Starr's office -- pulled off the gabfest version of the Triple Crown. He appeared on all five major Sunday political talk shows even as he proclaimed, "This is it, folks. This is my last round of Sunday shows. This thing has gotten out of hand."

As surprising as Ginsburg's omnipresence have been the statements he has made as he has conducted an extraordinary public negotiation with Starr over immunity:

The blithe confirmation that his client is the target of a grand jury investigation. The elliptical double hypothetical -- "If the president of the United States did this -- and I'm not saying that he did -- with this young lady, I think he's a misogynist. If he didn't, then I think Ken Starr and his crew have ravaged the life of a youngster."

The assertion that his client is standing by her affidavit "at this time" -- a caveat Ginsburg retracted yesterday. The statement that, if there are witnesses to intimate encounters between the president and Lewinsky, "I may have to renew my negotiating in a different way." The confirmation of key details in the name of clarification: that the president gave Lewinsky "a long T-shirt," rather than a dress, or that the two spoke on the telephone but did not have "phone sex."

Yesterday Ginsburg confirmed that his client owns a share of a condominium in Australia, thereby lending credence to reports that she offered it to confidante Tripp in exchange for Tripp's silence in the Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.

He pooh-poohed suggestions that a lawyer might have written the "talking points" Lewinsky gave to Tripp for her affidavit in the Jones case -- "They don't look like lawyer words to me" -- thereby casting more suspicion on Lewinsky herself as the author of a document that could constitute an attempt to obstruct justice.

He again undermined his client's credibility, saying "all 24-year-olds tend to embellish." He said Lewinsky and Clinton had "an emotional relationship," then refused to say whether it was platonic.

The time is long past when lawyers represented their clients only in the courtroom, and lawyers with experience in high-profile criminal cases acknowledge that part of their function is to defend their clients in the court of public opinion as well.

Yet Ginsburg's media whirlwind has astonished and perplexed those with more experience in criminal matters. It has also -- by Ginsburg's own admission -- infuriated prosecutors in Starr's office.

Interviews with more than a dozen experienced former prosecutors and defense lawyers produced a consensus that Ginsburg's tactics seem incomprehensible -- starting with his rejection, late on Jan. 16, of Starr's offer of complete immunity for Lewinsky. The immunity offer expired that night and Ginsburg has been attempting to replicate it since, without success.

Criminal defense lawyers acknowledge that it is impossible to fully and fairly judge another attorney's tactics from outside, without knowing details of the case or the client's instructions.

So there could be a method to the media madness -- perhaps a brilliant ploy to muddy the waters and make prosecution virtually impossible, as one Clinton lawyer privately speculated in the early days of Ginsburg's television marathon. Or it could be a deliberate attempt to so confuse Starr's attorneys that, out of desperation, they might grant the full immunity his client seeks -- and effectively seize control of Lewinsky from Ginsburg. Or it is possible he is systematically and intelligently creating public sympathy for "poor little Monica," as Ginsburg called her, so that Starr would not dare charge an "emotionally devastated" young woman who "needs to see her dad."

"Bill is an excellent lawyer and he should not be underestimated," George Stephan, one of Ginsburg's partners at his small Los Angeles firm, said over the weekend.

Ginsburg's specialty is medical malpractice cases. He has represented, among others, a doctor accused of covering up the cause of Liberace's death and the doctor who examined Loyola Marymount University basketball star Hank Gathers just before his sudden on-court death. He is being helped here by Nathaniel Speights, a former federal prosecutor who is doing the behind-the-scenes work. In a brief telephone conversation between media appearances yesterday -- "Ginsburg here. You've got me for one minute, literally," he announced -- the 54-year-old University of Southern California law school graduate presented himself as a canny litigator being nitpicked by jealous lawyers who would "want a piece of this" case.

"I've been trying to preserve my client's case, preserve her sanity, keep her emotionally stable," Ginsburg said of his media blitz. As to critics who say a civil litigator has no business being in a high-stakes criminal case, Ginsburg said, "It's always possible that I'm not as good as Alan Dershowitz, but I don't think so. I could have put Mike Tyson in jail just as well as he did."

Dershowitz, the renowned Harvard Law School professor who represented the former boxing champion in his losing appeal of a rape conviction, disagrees. "I hate to say this, because Bill Ginsburg seems like such a nice man, but he's way, way over his head," Dershowitz said on CNN's "Late Edition" yesterday, suggesting, among other missteps, that Ginsburg was in danger of waiving the attorney-client privilege shielding his conversations with Lewinsky because of his references to discussions with her -- for example, his revelation that she told him the clothes the FBI took from her apartment had been dry-cleaned.

"He's negotiating in public," Dershowitz said. "He has made a number of statements detrimental to his client . . . and I think she's in real jeopardy as a result of that."

"Pretend Brendan Sullivan had this client for just three minutes," said defense lawyer Nancy Luque, referring to the famously tenacious and taciturn lawyer for Oliver L. North Jr. "He wouldn't be talking to you and he wouldn't be talking to Starr."

As for Ginsburg, she added, "Does he really think going on five television programs is going to help her position, and, if so, how? I can't see how because what he's been doing hasn't helped, so how could he possibly think more of this is better?"

Defense lawyer Robert Luskin had a similar reaction, saying that "it had my jaw hanging" when Ginsburg explained that Clinton had given his client a T-shirt rather than a dress and then suggested she had a tendency to exaggerate.

"There are two people in the world who have a very strong vested interest in establishing her credibility," Luskin said. "One is her lawyer and the other is Ken Starr, and I wouldn't expect to hear anything damaging about her credibility from either of them. It's going to be used against her, and it's going to be that much harder for Starr to do anything with her, and if he can't do anything with her, the only thing that's left to do is prosecute her."

With his well-tended beard and fondness for fusty words like "peccadillo" and "fraught" and "broach," as in "broach the attorney-client privilege," Ginsburg has looked for all the world like he is having the time of his life as he makes the media rounds. He nods into the cameras like a pro, calls CNN's Wolf Blitzer "Wolfie" off-camera, and tosses off references to other media appearances, as in "the other day on the Barbara Walters show."

After his appearance Wednesday night on CNN's "Larry King Live," Ginsburg checked in with his wife, who reported that Ginsburg's mother had seen the show and reported that her son looked good. Ginsburg sought assurance about his joking remark that he, rather than his client, might accept Penthouse magazine's $2 million offer to pose partially nude. "Was it okay?" he asked. Then he repeated the latest joke about Clinton and oral sex.

At the conclusion of "Fox News Sunday," Ginsburg -- with family members in tow -- sounded for all the world like he was preparing to abandon law for punditry. "Thank you all for coming," he said.

On "Meet the Press," Ginsburg -- who less than two weeks earlier had branded Clinton a misogynist, assuming the allegations were true -- even ventured a rosy assessment that could have come from the White House damage control operation: "The president will remain in office. He'll do a good job. We'll all, hopefully, have a sound economy, keep our jobs. And I think everything's going to be fine."

But on CBS's "Face the Nation," after explaining that his client wants to get out and "go shopping," Ginsburg confided that the events of the last few weeks had been hard on him as well.

"Bob," he told host Bob Schieffer, "I want to do that too. I want to go out and do the things that people normally do. It's -- it's -- it's tough."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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