One of the interesting sidelights of this political season is the decline of the "Washington lawyer" as presidential counselor, power broker and all-purpose political fixer.
For generations, these men (and they were nearly all men) were the ultimate "go-to guys" who could get a bill passed or a presidential appointment scuttled or a secret deal negotiated. But no more. For better or worse, the Washington they lived to manipulate is gone with the wind.
Washington lawyers don't have the ear of this year's presidential candidates; indeed, the high-profile D.C. attorneys these days are the ones like Greg Craig who helped the president beat a perjury rap. And in a city where power is so diffuse, it's clearly harder to be a power broker. How can you put in the fix with a Congress that doesn't pass any legislation?
The old "super lawyers" were the marquee names of Washington, often outshining the politicians they courted and served: Clark Clifford, Edward Bennett Williams, Tommy "the Cork" Corcoran, Robert Strauss, Lloyd Cutler. These legendary figures were retained more for their status as advice-givers than for any particular technical skill at litigation or legislative drafting.
A story was told of Clifford, for example, that conveyed the immense but weightless power these men had. A frantic client supposedly called Clifford and asked what he should do about a particular business deal. "Nothing," advised Clifford, who then sent the man a bill for $10,000. When the client demanded to know why he should do nothing, Clifford is said to have replied, "Because I said so," and sent him a bill for $20,000.
Clifford's opinion was so valuable that Lyndon Johnson turned to him in despair in 1967, when the Vietnam War was turning sour, and asked him, in effect: What should I do? His advice was less memorable than the name given to his cabal of power brokers--"The Wise Men."
But where are they now? Neither of the leading presidential candidates has a Washington lawyer as a prominent adviser. When you think of someone who could put in the fix with George W. Bush or Al Gore, you think of campaign strategists or wealthy campaign contributors, not lawyers. Lawyers in the 21st century are technicians, not counselors.
"Mostly it's the economics of specialization--the day of the generalists is over," explains Cutler. He notes that nowadays, there are specialists in lobbying, or antitrust, or tax. The kind of broad advisory role Cutler himself played is largely gone.
How different things were a generation ago, when Congress operated like a southern plantation and the White House was one big smoke-filled room. A well-connected Washington lawyer in those days could pay a visit to his old friend the committee chairman and, poof! Problem solved.
That kind of inside-the-clubhouse legal practice still survives, to be sure. Tommy Boggs, the head of Patton Boggs and a congressman's son himself, is still described as "the man to see" about getting certain kinds of deals done in Washington.
But it's not the same anymore. A telling sign is that Vernon Jordan, one of the wiliest Washington lawyers around and a man who truly did have the president's ear, has bailed out and become an investment banker in New York. Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general who might have been a female addition to the super lawyer club, decided she didn't want to practice law and became vice chairman of Fannie Mae. And Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel, recently left Arnold & Porter to start a consulting and lobbying practice.
"You can't be a Lloyd Cutler anymore," says Bob Bennett, who represented President Clinton in the Paula Jones case. "The way the conflict-of-interest rules are, and the way they're overinterpreted by the press, and the way everybody's gotten so antsy. . . . It's just different. It's a different era."
Part of what made the old model work was the illusion that a Washington lawyer could somehow be above the fray. Edward Bennett Williams's biographer, Evan Thomas of Newsweek, recalls that Williams liked to say: "I don't represent the client, I represent the situation." Similarly, Clifford--the master lobbyist--insisted to clients that he didn't do lobbying.
Williams, Clifford and their fellow super lawyers hated the idea that they were mere partisans--in their minds, they were legal statesmen. That lofty self-image allowed them to advise, simultaneously, all the various parties in a dispute--to be the president's friend, and the Ways and Means chairman's friend and the tax-lobbying corporate CEO's friend.
But that kind of sleight of hand won't work anymore. Even the most high-minded attorney has to reckon with the phrase "conflict of interest." And even Clifford, in all his well-tailored glory, couldn't put in the fix for a client today. Washington is too amorphous and punctilious. There's no single address to visit, and no one who can cut a deal that will stick.
The demise of the Washington lawyer is doubtless a healthy trend for the republic. A mandarin class of lawyers doesn't fit well with a democracy, after all. But their decline coincides with a deeper Washington malaise: the eclipse of government. In the fixers' heyday, at least there was something to fix.