Lloyd Cutler, 87, a Washington legal mandarin who served as White House counsel under presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, died yesterday at his home in Washington. He had complications from a broken hip.
Cutler was a commanding presence among the capital's power elite for decades and at home in the highest levels of industry, government and politics. He was a founding partner of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, one of the city's leading law firms. Last year, it merged with a Boston firm to become Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, with offices on three continents and more than 1,000 lawyers.
Cutler was a Democrat who was nonpartisan in his legal work. His clients ranged from liberal advocacy groups to big business, including trade associations for cars, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. His corporate clients included The Washington Post Co., CBS, Bethlehem Steel, Kaiser Steel, IBM, American Express, Pan American World Airways and the Long Island Rail Road.
At times, he assisted such prominent Republicans as former secretaries of state George P. Shultz, Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker III. He once was an arbiter for the Rolling Stones during a disagreement with the band's manager and, in perhaps one of his least heralded success stories, persuaded Mick Jagger to wear a necktie at the Metropolitan Club.
Louis R. Cohen, a partner at the firm and a former deputy solicitor general of the United States, said that for many, his boss "defined political and legal public policy in Washington." He cited Cutler's active role spanning the major issues of his lifetime, including the law of the sea and public policies affecting housing, railroads and disarmament.
A gravelly-voiced and courtly man who exuded Ivy League polish and confidence, Cutler had admirers who liked to highlight his pro bono work dating from the civil rights battles of the 1960s. He co-chaired a group called Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formed at the request of President John F. Kennedy. He also played a major role in organizing lawyers to defend those whose civil rights had been violated for protesting segregation as well as those arrested during the riots spurred by the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He later argued before the U.S. Supreme Court the case of NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., (1982), which helped the civil rights organization avoid paying a large financial penalty for having organized a boycott against white merchants in Mississippi in the late 1960s.
He was seen by his close associates as an idealist who asked that his employees always find "the right answer," even if it did not mesh initially with the client's desire. Much of his work was focused on the notion of finding an avenue of compromise between big industries, which seldom wished to capitulate, and their equally ardent adversaries.
Perhaps Cutler's most persistent critic was consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who once called him "the symbol of anti-consumerism in Washington" for having helped the auto industry in the 1960s avoid proposed criminal penalties for safety violations.
Joseph Laitin, the late Washington Post ombudsman and Treasury Department spokesman, described Cutler as "a corporate godfather by day and Sister Theresa by night."
Once, in connection with his representation of the pharmaceutical industry, Cutler explained his work in these terms:
"I take a dim view of the idea that any right-minded lawyer can immediately detect which side of a legislative, regulatory or litigation issue is the public interest side and that right-minded lawyers should decline to represent anyone representing a different side.
"Cancer and radiation, alcoholism, highway and workplace accidents, commercial fraud and unreasonable restraints on competition are certainly against the public interest. But that does not begin to answer the question of whether a particular legislative or regulatory remedy, or one side of a particular litigation, is against the public interest. My favorite example is Prohibition."
Lloyd Norton Cutler was born Nov. 10, 1917, in New York. His father, a trial lawyer, was a law partner of Fiorello La Guardia, a future congressman and New York mayor whom Cutler recalled most vividly for "brandishing a pork chop in his hand" as he made a point about the Depression on the U.S. House floor.
Cutler's life was largely untouched by the Depression, and as a young man he cruised to Europe with his friend Najeeb Halaby, who later headed the Federal Aviation Administration and Pan American World Airways.
Cutler graduated from Yale in 1936 at age 18 with a bachelor's degree in history and economics. Three years later, he graduated magna cum laude from Yale Law School, where he was editor in chief of the law journal.
After a court clerkship, he worked briefly for a Wall Street law firm that is now Cravath, Swaine & Moore, where he handed railroad reorganizations. He moved to Washington in World War II to work for the Lend-Lease Administration and also spent time in Army intelligence.
At war's end, he became the youngest partner of a new law firm with Lend-Lease colleagues. He handled antitrust work; helped government employees hounded by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) for alleged Communist links; and aided industrialists, such as Henry J. Kaiser, interested in opening plants in the United States and abroad.
In 1962, he founded Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering with Richard Wilmer and John Pickering.
As a friend of the late Post publisher Philip L. Graham, Cutler was chosen to be Graham's counsel when the news executive was appointed in the early 1960s to help incorporate the new Communications Satellite Corp. (Comsat), the federally created provider of satellite telecommunications.
In 1979, he was brought into the Carter White House as counsel to the president. In an administration that prided itself on keeping clear of the Washington establishment, he was the ultimate insider.
Problems on which he worked included the effort to persuade the Senate to ratify the SALT II arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union. The ratification was doomed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Cutler also advised Carter on how to handle media and congressional interest in his younger brother, Billy, whose business dealings with the Qaddafi government in Libya were fast becoming a political liability.
To help end the seizure of 52 American hostages by Islamic radicals in Iran, the president successfully dispatched Cutler to persuade the deposed shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, to leave U.S. soil for Panama. The hostages were not released until the moment on Jan. 20, 1981, when Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter as president.
Cutler was called back to the White House in 1994 to serve Clinton temporarily during the imbroglio surrounding the Whitewater real estate fiasco.
During his 130-day assignment, he tried to get the White House off the defensive. He encouraged first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to hold a news conference and talk about her family's finances -- a media gambit many considered successful.
By his demeanor and experience, Cutler lent gravity to a Clinton White House seen by its critics as amateurish in handling crises.
"I am not here as a special pleader for the president of the United States," he told the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee in July 1994. "I am here to report to you about a factual investigation that I conducted. I didn't ask for this job. I came in and I took it and I reported, frankly, to the best of my ability as a lawyer and a person of integrity."
Replied committee member Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.): "You're one of the smoothest operators in Washington. Mr. Cutler, you're much too smooth."
The tone was hardly one of animosity, and Cutler had a skillful way of attracting admirers across the aisle. Long a believer that politicians should not insert their ideological biases when making appointments to the bench, he surprised many Democrats in 1987 by backing the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork, the conservative legal scholar and federal appeals court judge.
At the time, he warned Democrats that should they win back the White House, Republicans would relish payback for stalling nominations on ideological grounds. Bork's failure to gain confirmation from a Democratic-controlled Senate rankled Republicans for years and contributed to the current partisan warfare over judges.
In a statement yesterday, President Bush called Cutler "a devoted public servant who had a profound influence on the legal profession."
Outside of his practice, Cutler was devoted to Yale and helped raise $374 million for the school.
In recent years, he served on special panels looking into everything from the continuity of government during a terrorist attack to a salmon treaty revision. He was a member of the commission chaired by Charles S. Robb, the former Virginia governor and senator, and Laurence H. Silberman, a senior federal judge, that reviewed the quality of U.S. intelligence gathering leading to the war in Iraq.
Cutler's first wife, Louise Howe, whom he married in 1941, died in 1988. He later married the artist Rhoda Winton "Polly" Kraft, the widow of columnist Joseph Kraft.
Survivors include his second wife, of Washington; four children from his first marriage, Deborah Notman of Chestnut Hill, Mass., Beverly Cutler, an Alaska Superior Court judge who lives in Palmer, Alaska, Lloyd Norton Cutler Jr. of Englewood, Colo., and Louisiana "Louann" Cutler of Anchorage; two stepsons, David W. Stevens of Denver and Mark W. Stevens of New York; a sister; and eight grandchildren.