By Kevin Merida
In 1992, with Bill Clinton's presidential campaign on the verge of ruin in New Hampshire, a combative lawyer with a slight Southern drawl answered the cry for help. Allegations that Clinton had evaded the draft during the Vietnam War and carried on a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers threatened to send the Arkansas governor packing early.
Flying in from Los Angeles, Mickey Kantor brought to the crisis sharp political instincts and equally sharp elbows. He also had a tenured relationship with the Clintons that gave him an understanding of what the candidate needed in his most troubled hour.
The 58-year-old Nashville native, who favors suspenders and pinstriped suits, is playing virtually the same role now the crisis relief pitcher.
Mandy Grunwald, a '92 Clinton campaign consultant, remembers his focused-like-a-laser style. Soon after Kantor arrived in New Hampshire, she says, he instructed that only two people would brief Clinton on staff discussions before major events, "so that the advice to be conveyed would be conveyed crisply."
"I thought, he understands his guy," Grunwald recalls. "Don't overload his circuits. It was a very small example that we're going to introduce discipline into this campaign. It's exactly what's needed in this situation a plan and a lot of discipline."
Last week, as allegations that Clinton had sex with a former White House intern and asked her to lie about it imperiled his administration, the president reached out to several of his oldest and most valued advisers. Kantor, who wearily left the administration a year ago after serving as U.S. trade representative and commerce secretary, talked to Clinton well into the night on Friday. On Saturday morning he met with the president at the White House to cement an arrangement that allows Clinton to confide in Kantor and for those conversations to be protected under attorney-client privilege.
Officially, Kantor and his Los Angeles firm Mayer, Brown & Platt have been retained primarily to help Clinton attorney David Kendall handle matters relating to the independent counsel's investigation, says one White House official, while attorney Robert S. Bennett concentrates on the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. But by necessity, the work of Clinton's personal attorneys intersects.
Administration sources describe Kantor's duties as coordinating the political and legal arguments in the president's defense. He's someone who understands law and political communication and can "see how they interrelate," says one source. He is there to be a "unifying force," says a highly placed Clintonite.
"Mickey is more of a strategic thinker than Kendall and more trustworthy than Bennett," says a lawyer familiar with the White House strategy.
Others speculate Kantor is there for his blind loyalty; he's one person who won't go south on Clinton even if it turns out the president is lying.
During the 1992 campaign, Kantor demonstrated his allegiance to Clinton when he publicly lashed former California governor Jerry Brown for "giving hypocrisy a bad name" after Brown took on Hillary Rodham Clinton during a presidential debate in Chicago. This was the same Mickey Kantor who ran Brown's campaigns for president (1976) and the Senate (1982). In the spring of 1996, Kantor further showed his loyalty by reluctantly agreeing to take over the Commerce Department after the death of Ron Brown. It was not a job he wanted. He also arranged consulting work for Clinton friend Webster Hubbell, which he later was required to testify about before a grand jury. Hubbell, the former No. 3 official in the Justice Department, was convicted on fraud and tax charges.
Kantor is one of few in the president's inner circle with longstanding ties to each of the Clintons. He actually met Hillary Clinton first, back in 1978 when they served on the Legal Services Corp. board during the Carter administration. That same year Bill Clinton was forging his national political identity, becoming the youngest elected governor in four decades. Kantor soon became part of the Arkansas governor's extensive national network.
Ten years later, Kantor played a prominent role in Clinton's agonizing decision to forgo a planned bid for the 1988 presidential race, in part over worries that he could not survive the character scrutiny after Gary Hart was forced to abort his candidacy in 1987. In 1992, Kantor was among the first to broach with Clinton the subject of how he was going to handle questions of infidelity, according to "First in His Class," a Clinton biography by Washington Post writer David Maraniss.
His return to the president's side has emboldened some old Clinton hands. "I think when people hear that, they say, 'Good, glad to see it,'‚" says David Wilhelm, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who was Clinton's '92 campaign manager. "He always seemed to be the unofficial chair of the Friends of Bill in the campaign, first among equals."
"It's important to have someone in the inner counsel like Mickey to make sure people keep their heads on straight," says Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party and a friend of Kantor's for 25 years. "He has common sense and a rare combination of political and legal perspective. I think he'll be able to bring stability and seasoning."
Kantor has a reputation as a skilled negotiator who is known for his fierce desire to win. Sometimes this desire to best his foes manifests itself with nervous pacing. Other times, the will to win takes a more dramatic turn. On the tennis court, for instance, he has been known to hurl his racket in disgust. "I am the worst loser you ever met in your life," he told The Washington Post in an interview during the 1992 campaign. "I get mad."
Mad and also abrasive, some say. But Kantor often seems unfazed by such critiques. "I have to keep pushing people," he told the National Journal in a 1994 interview. "My job is to make sure we get it done. It's not a popularity contest. You can't be Mr. Nice Guy."
Randall Robinson says Kantor is not even Mr. Honest Guy.
In his new book, "Defending the Spirit," Robinson, president of TransAfrica, details a meeting in March 1996 with then-U.S. Trade Representative Kantor over preserving vital overseas markets for Caribbean agricultural exports particularly bananas.
In the meeting, attended by Robinson and Caribbean ambassadors, Kantor was "unfailingly gracious," Robinson writes, and said he would recommend that informal meetings be convened with all parties involved to work out a solution. But the meeting participants later learned that the United States had referred the matter to the World Trade Organization for a ruling.
"In unambiguous language, with an open face and an earnestness of voice and eye, Mickey Kantor had in our March meeting told us a bald-faced lie," Robinson writes.
It's not just Kantor's candor that has been questioned from time to time, but also some of his political judgments. As Walter Mondale's 1984 California campaign director, he convinced the former vice president that he would win the state's presidential primary. Gary Hart clobbered him. It was also Kantor who promoted auto executive Lee Iacocca as Mondale's running mate, an idea many Democrats considered ridiculous.
Many Democrats thought it was a good idea to name Kantor chairman of Clinton's '92 drive for the White House, but he soon clashed with some of the campaign's principals, including strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Some of that tension stemmed from Kantor's operating style, which included leaks to the media and his tendency, according to one administration official, to "get out a little ahead of himself" in the campaign.
"Mickey has a side of him that can be self-important," says one political operative familiar with the campaign's dynamics. But this person added that Mickey brought "gravitas" to the Clinton effort. He was someone who could network with governors and senators and financiers while the Carville-led ground troops were out playing politics.
It was Kantor who led the debate negotiations with the Bush campaign (a role he replayed during the '96 reelection effort). And it was Kantor who was the key liaison to the persnickety campaign of Ross Perot. But in the end, Kantor was left with not a plum but a pomegranate for his efforts.
He wasn't given the role of heading the transition, which he coveted. He wasn't tapped for a glamour Cabinet post (such as attorney general). Instead, he was picked to be U.S. trade representative. "Almost as an afterthought," says a White House official.
Kantor privately blamed some of Clinton's political team for dooming him with their whispers that he was part of the problem Americans had with politics a well-connected attorney who unduly wielded his influence. Their argument was simple: How could the new president assume the mantle of political reformer in Washington if his campaign chairman was an old-fashioned wheeler-dealer?
Kantor wasn't helped by news reports before the election that suggested he was flaunting his status as Clinton's campaign chief by attending private briefings that his law firm then Manatt, Phelps, Phillips & Kantor convened for clients and prospective clients. A self-described warrior, Kantor became a victim in the game of hardball he sometimes played himself. His detractors in the Clinton ranks had cut off his legs.
"Mickey had a rough run through the campaign and had his ups and downs," says the White House official. But Kantor recovered nicely. "He went from a near-death experience," the official adds, "to being one of the most effective members of the Cabinet in Clinton's first term."
As trade representative, his most notable achievements were orchestrating congressional approval of the politically divisive North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and wrapping up the stalled Uruguay Round, the multilateral trade negotiations that had begun during the Reagan administration.
"History will view him very favorably as a trade rep," says Greg Mastel, an international economist at the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington think tank. "He was able to translate complicated academic messages to the political environment. There really are only a handful of people who can do that."
Mastel, who was a Democratic Senate staffer for 10 years, says Kantor was one of the few Cabinet members who could go to Capitol Hill and not get steamrollered: "He was able to use his knowledge of politics to get the right substantive outcome."
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