His Case to TV
By Ruth Marcus
The 37-year-old George Washington University legal scholar who specializes in environmental law has suddenly become the Lewinsky investigation talking head of the moment -- attractive, articulate and available.
In the last week, with the subpoena of President Clinton and immunity deal for Monica Lewinsky, Turley's opined on the "Today" show, "Nightline," CNN's "Crossfire," Fox News Channel and MSNBC's "Big Show With Keith Olbermann."
"He's going to outdo Ginsburg," says "Face the Nation" host and Turley fan Bob Schieffer, referring to William Ginsburg, Lewinsky's media-happy former lawyer. "He's working on a Cal Ripken streak. . . . I don't think he's missed a Sunday on somebody's show." (Turley's been on Schieffer's CBS show three times in the last two months, along with two appearances each on "Meet the Press" and "This Week.")
Turley has become one of the latest and most prominent practitioners of legal punditry, a broadcast art form that flowered during the O.J. Simpson murder trial and that has grown into a veritable legal cottage industry since the Lewinsky story broke six months ago.
A liberal Democrat who voted for Clinton in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 1996, Turley combines a talent for sound bites with a willingness to take on the president. "People in the media know him and trust his judgment -- not to mention the fact that for television purposes he certainly cuts a nice figure," says Jack Friedenthal, who recently stepped down as dean of George Washington's law school.
His point of view -- and ubiquity -- have clearly gotten under the skin of Clinton partisans as well. On "Fox News Sunday," former Clinton White House counsel Abner Mikva went at it with Turley, who had volunteered in Mikva's campaigns when he was an Illinois congressman and Turley was in high school.
Turley argued that shielding Secret Service agents from having to testify would turn them into a "personal household guard" that stood above the law. "I'm astonished that you seem so cavalier about it," he told Mikva.
"I'm only astonished at how often I read your name in the newspaper about this," Mikva said. "I thought you used to do environmental law."
The next day, Turley was something of a minor folk hero on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, as the conservative talk show host went on at length about the encounter, praising Turley's performance.
Though talkative on television, Turley declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, he faxed a statement saying he did not want to contribute to a "cult of personality. . . . I suggest The Washington Post follow the legal rule de minimis non curat lex -- 'the law does not concern itself with trifles.' I am a trifle as are the other commentators in the media."
In an earlier discussion, seeking to head off a profile, Turley said: "I don't view myself as a pundit. I've really taken efforts to avoid that." He said he had avoided going on many of the more rambunctious cable shows and added, "I'm on fewer shows than it may appear because when I go on Sunday shows they play the tape a lot."
In some respects, Turley is following in the long tradition of lawyers and law professors who leave the courtrooms and law reviews for more accessible endeavors. But it was the presence of cameras in the courtroom for the Simpson trial four years ago that catapulted lawyers into the spotlight as ne
Now, with the proliferation of all-news cable channels and the emergence of a sexy new twist to Starr's investigation, television's appetite for legal talking heads has become nearly insatiable.
"It's a supply-and-demand problem at one level," with the number of programs outstripping the supply of Rolodex-ready lawyers, says St. John's University law professor John Q. Barrett, a former Iran-contra prosecutor who has made an academic specialty of the independent counsel law and consequently has found himself on everything from "Hardball" to "Nightline" to "NBC Nightly News."
"These programs have developed niche spokespeople," says Lanny Davis, a former White House special counsel. Turley "is the academic thoughtful pro-Starr niche."
Indeed, on some nights, the population of lawyers on TV approaches the size of a small law firm, as nearly everyone with a law degree and a "former" before his or her name has a television gig.
Bradford Berenson, an associate at Sidley & Austin, experienced the media's voracious appetite for legal experts after friends who had worked for Starr recommended him to a television producer. Berenson then wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times on the Starr investigation.
"That was kind of instant credibility . . . sort of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval," he says. "Since then it's been four or five calls a day to do various things, most of which I've turned down."
If the O.J. trial, with gavel-to-gavel coverage on CNN and Court TV, provoked demand for lawyers who could explain it all to you, the Lewinsky investigation has generated a demand for legal talking heads for an opposite reason: the dearth of actual news -- or at least on-camera news -- to cover.
Not only is there no camera in the courtroom in the Lewinsky matter, there is, for the most part, no courtroom -- only closed grand jury proceedings. And for the most part, the principals in the case -- Starr or his spokesman, the president or his lawyers -- are unavailable. The ouster of the voluble Ginsburg -- who one weekend managed to appear on five talk shows -- was particularly painful for Lewinsky producers.
As a result, much of the Lewinsky commentary has been as much speculation as explanation. "They say, 'Well, you're a legal expert, tell us what Starr's motivations are,' " says National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor, a lawyer and frequent television guest.
Often, guests with an obvious political point of view are identified merely by their formal positions. For example, Barbara Olson, who served as Republican counsel to one of the congressional committees probing the administration, is often billboarded only as a former federal prosecutor.
Many nights there is a certain "Groundhog Day" quality to the legal punditry as the same set of issues -- Is Starr out of control? Why is Clinton stonewalling? -- are litigated and relitigated on the airwaves by advocates using the same shreds of evidence.
Into this traveling legal road show comes Turley, continuing his Zelig-like knack for popping up in the midst of newsworthy events.
In the Elizabeth Morgan custody case, Turley represented Morgan's ex-husband, Eric Foretich, when Congress passed a bill permitting Morgan and her daughter to return to the United States. "Professor Turley is probably the only thing or person that stands between me and what I view as the total violation of my rights as a citizen of the United States, and I don't mean that as a cute little phrase," Foretich says, in his first on-the-record remarks in nine years.
In the Harold James Nicholson espionage case, Turley helped the former CIA officer challenge the use of evidence obtained through a secret national security court.
In the Justice Department's investigation of environmental abuses at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, Turley represented 23 grand jurors in a government probe of whether they improperly leaked information. Later, when the Lewinsky story broke, Turley faxed a reporter suggesting that he be contacted as an expert on the grand jury process on the basis of his Rocky Flats experience.
In one of Turley's more celebrated cases, he is representing former workers at a super-secret Air Force testing facility in Nevada known as Area 51 who claim they were injured by exposure to hazardous waste. The contents of his George Washington campus office were sealed by federal court order when the Air Force claimed that Turley's files contain classified documents.
"Clinton doesn't want these crimes made public," he said during an interview last year about the Area 51 litigation. "When we finally prevail in this case and the truth comes out, I think the public is going to want to burn the Justice Department to the ground -- followed quickly by the White House."
Since the Lewinsky story broke, Turley has been torching the White House with his rhetoric. He attracted media attention with some provocative op-ed pieces -- "Guarding the King, Not His Secrets," was the headline of an article he wrote in February's Legal Times -- then signed up four former attorneys general to file a brief opposing the administration's stance that Secret Service agents should not be compelled to testify. He has insisted that Clinton has a constitutional duty to answer questions from Starr's prosecutors, and that perjury -- even about a sexual matter -- would constitute grounds for impeachment.
"If the president is a perjurer, he can no longer stay in office," Turley told "Fox News Sunday" earlier this month.
Some of Turley's colleagues sniff at his celebrity, saying he has forsaken scholarship for self-aggrandizement. "If there were the deanship for self-promotion, he'd get it," says one member of the GW faculty.
Says Eric Effron, editor and publisher of Legal Times, a newspaper that has written extensively about Turley's cases: "He is skilled at cultivating the press. I think he calls people with story ideas. When he's about to file a brief, he lets you know the brief is going to be filed."
Still, Effron says, "he's certainly not alone in having developed that skill."
News researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company