A few days ago, a prominent Wall Street lawyer checked into a Houston hotel for a quiet, late-night meeting with two oil company executives.
He wasn't looking for new business. His clients already include the likes of IBM, CBS and Time Inc.
David Boies had a different mission. He was there to sell Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Boies is the former chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Kennedy chairs. Seven years ago, at 31, he became the youngest partner in the New York firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
Boies returned to his law firm last May, where he is said to earn more than a quarter of a million dollars annually. But he has mixed his legal work with a concerted effort to persuade corporate executives there is more to Kennedy than his free-spending image.
Boies has averaged about two speeches or meetings a week since he started traveling on Kennedy's behalf last June. Originally he was trying to build business support for some of Kennedy's legislative initiatives. Today the issue of Kennedy's candidacy is central.
"A lot of these people -- and I'm talking about board chairmen and the like -- will vote Republican, no matter what," said a New York atorney who has watched Boies in action. "But David Boies has had some success convincing them the country won't go down the tubes if Kennedy is elected president."
In his meetings with business executives, Boies concentrates on Kennedy's deregulation initiatives, his efforts to recodify the criminal code. He also tells audiences Kennedy believes the federal government should exercise fiscal restraint. He further stresses Kennedy's successful efforts, with eventual industry support, to revise Food and Drug Administration regulation of the medical device industry.
"When they say he's a '60s liberal, I say 'Would a '60s liberal have introduced airline deregulation?'" Boies said. "Would a '60s liberal be moving to recodify the criminal code andvote for a balanced budget and go one step further with tax expenditures?"
Boies adds, however, that Kennedy opposes a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.
Kennedy recently voted for a budget resolution expressing the hope of the Senate that the budget be balanced in the future. A year ago he opposed a Senate amendment urging a balanced budget in fiscal 1981.
Kennedy has encouraged the Boies meetings because he realizes that he and hs aggressive, liberal staff do not have open lines with business. Boies is widely respected as a successful coporate attorney and has entree where other Kennedy staff members do not.
Kennedy says that when he first hired Boies to head the antitrust subcommittee staff in 1977 it was not necessarily with Boies' contacts in mind. But there is little doubt that Boies now offers Kennedy a unique link to corporate boardrooms.
James D. McKevitt, Washington counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business, is another who has seen Boies sell Kennedy.
"Boies is a big asset to Kennedy," McKevitt said. "But the membership is waiting to see where Kennedy comes down on economics. It may sound like a cliche, but what they are looking for is leadership."
Irving S. Shapiro, Chairman of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., bitterly disagrees with Kennedy and Boies about antimerger legislation, but has great respect for Boies. "He has to be a great help to Kennedy," Shapiro said. "He knows a lot of business people."
Boies has put together a card file of between 300 and 400 names of coporate officials whom he has met or who have written Kennedy to get to know Kennedy and his staff better.
Increasingly, business people initiate the meetings, because of Kennedy's emergence as presidential candidate and because his rhetoric, at least, sounds less and less antibusiness.
For example, Kennedy, in a recent interview, talked of his interest in being a "problem solver," using "innovative ways of providing relief for the needs of people."
"But," he added, in words that cheer Boies, "I believe very strongly that government interference ought to be the last resort."
"If we can just get them to listen," Boies said, "they'll realize that Kennedy is not their enemy."