By Peter Carlson
Nathan Landow's lawyers are trying to shut him up, but it's not working. Landow loves to talk.
"Lawyers will be lawyers," he says
And Landow will be Landow.
The voluble local real estate developer and Democratic Party fund-raiser is sitting in his Bethesda office, wearing a multicolored sports shirt with no tie, baggy blue pants, beige sneakers and a big gold watch. With his gray hair, his burly body and a potbelly that makes him look like a man shoplifting a football, he does not cut the kind of figure that the phrase "White House sex scandal" conjures in the prurient mind.
Landow, 65, entered the ever-expanding scandal when Kathleen Willey, who accused the president of groping her, claimed that she had "discussed" her deposition in the Paula Jones case with him. Then, in her now-famous "60 Minutes" interview, Willey said that she and Landow had discussed it "extensively." Meanwhile, Newsweek was reporting that Landow had paid $1,050 for the chartered plane that flew Willey from her Richmond home to his Eastern Shore vacation house, where, the magazine said, he "repeatedly pressed her about her version of the encounter."
After that came the deluge: Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr sent Landow a subpoena, and scads of reporters were calling to grill him about his talks with Willey, as well as old accusations about his alleged ties to organized crime and his role in what a recent Senate report called the "fleecing" of two impoverished Indian tribes by Democratic operatives.
Some of the callers were treated to ear-scorching blasts of angry epithets from Landow. Others had to settle for a sedate press release: "Nathan Landow has made no attempt whatsoever to influence Ms. Kathleen Willey concerning her testimony with respect to President Clinton."
At the height of the media frenzy, Landow flew to the Caribbean for a vacation. Now, he's back, tanned, rested and ready to talk about Willey.
He met her in 1994, he says. She was a friend of his daughter, Harolyn Cardozo, who met Willey when they both worked as volunteers in the White House. "She's kind of a down person," he says. "She's not upbeat." She was very upset about the prospect of being deposed in the Paula Jones case, he says, and he listened patiently as she talked about ducking the subpoena.
"I just told her, 'Kathleen, do what's right for you.'" he says.
He isn't supposed to be talking about this. His lawyer, Joe R. Caldwell, had canceled this interview, citing the specter of Ken Starr. But Landow's talking anyway, rambling garrulously about everything from his childhood to his passion for Vice President Gore to his designs for a revolutionary new kind of golf course.
The fearsome Landow temper is nowhere in evidence. This is the soft-spoken Landow, the charming Landow who once sweet-talked otherwise rational people into ponying up large contributions to such quixotic Democratic debacles as the 1984 Walter Mondale presidential campaign and the 1988 Gore presidential campaign. Now, he's offering a newspaper reporter he's never met before the use of his vacation house in Aspen, Colo.
"We don't rent it out," he says, "but you could take your family out and stay there sometime if you want."
He makes the offer twice. He actually sounds serious. Is this guy for real?
Nathan Landow is, as Regardie's magazine once put it, "a quintessential Washington mover and shaker."
He grew up in Northwest Washington, the only child of a retired Army colonel who went into the business of manufacturing bronze memorial tablets for churches and synagogues. Landow graduated from Coolidge High School and and Benjamin Franklin University, then spent two years in the Army. In 1955, he married Barbara Siegel and went to work for her father, who owned a liquor store in Washington.
It was a secure life, but Landow was a go-getter eager to get going. He took a correspondence course in reading blueprints, bought a little piece of property on Capitol Hill and put up a small apartment building. That building made money, so he built another. And another. And another.
In 1965 he and a partner built the Colonnade, a 14-story luxury apartment building on New Mexico Avenue NW. In 1973 he sold it at a $9 million profit and built another luxury apartment building, the Promenade in Bethesda. A few years later, he sold the Promenade at a profit of $28 million.
Always, he kept building a huge office complex near Metro Center, apartments in Virginia and Maryland, malls in New York and Arizona. By 1991 he was among Washington's 75 richest people, according to Regardie's, which estimated his wealth at between $100 million and $200 million.
"He had good business judgment and he had guts," recalls Donald Brown, a veteran Washington developer who did some deals with Landow in the '60s. "Timing is very important in building, and he had very good timing."
Very rich, a bit bored and itching for a new challenge, Landow signed on as a fund-raiser for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976. He quickly exhibited an innate grasp of the fund-raiser's art: "To be successful at raising money, you've got to give money," he says, "You have to have lots of friends and acquaintances and you have to be wiling to respond to their requests, too."
After Carter's victory, Landow's daughter, Harolyn, got a job at the White House, and top presidential aide Hamilton Jordan started hanging out at the Landows' Eastern Shore vacation house. For a while, it looked as if Carter might appoint Landow as ambassador to the Netherlands. But in 1978, The Washington Post printed a front-page story revealing that Landow had hired Joe Nesline, a Washington illegal-gambling kingpin, as a consultant in an unsuccessful effort to build a casino in Atlantic City. At the time, Landow admitted that Nesline was a friend but denied knowing about his friend's criminal past. Now Landow says, "There were a lot of inaccuracies in that article."
Maybe, maybe not, but the bad publicity killed Landow's chances to become an ambassador. He had to settle for an honorary post as an alternate representative to the United Nations.
That stung, but it didn't sour Landow on politics. In 1984 he was Mondale's top fund-raiser, bringing $2 million into the doomed campaign. After Mondale's defeat, Landow organized IMPAC, a group of Democratic donors who hoped to steer the party toward the middle of the road in 1988.
"We were looking for a moderate, mainstream Democrat," he says, "and we became much interested in Mr. Gore."
Landow became the senator's finance chairman in the '88 campaign. He collected lots of money, but Gore didn't collect many votes. He got creamed by Michael Dukakis, who went on to get creamed by George Bush.
After the 1988 defeat, Landow moved out of national politics and became chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. That is traditionally a largely ceremonial job, but Landow took it seriously. He raised a ton of money, opened up a new party headquarters and equipped it with a state-of-the-art computer system. But the brusque, do-it-my-way style of this Rolex-wearing, Mercedes-driving plutocrat irked many party officials.
"He went out of his way to scream and holler and yell at me," recalls Mary Jo Neville, a veteran member of the party's central committee. "One day, he started screaming at me, saying I was ruining the party, saying I needed psychological help, saying that people hated me. I was shocked."
Landow denies ever yelling at Neville or anyone else. "It's not my style," he says. "I don't yell at people."
In 1991 an anti-Landow faction, supported by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, tried to oust him. But the party's Executive Committee wasn't eager to kill its cash cow and voted 23 to 12 to keep Landow. Humbled (a little), the chairman apologized (sort of): "In my burst of energy and frenzy, I made some mistakes."
"If you judge him by raising money and winning elections, he was very successful," says Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Landow supporter in the ouster battle. Miller explains the fight as a clash of styles. "It's hard for a person who's an independent businessman, who is used to getting his way, to go into a government bureaucracy or a political bureaucracy. They're used to saying something and getting it done. I'm sure he was frustrated many times as party chairman."
Shortly after the 1992 Democratic convention, Landow quit his party post and went to work as a fund-raiser for the Clinton-Gore campaign. He played the same role in 1996, and he estimates that he raised more than $600,000 for the two campaigns.
A few weeks after Clinton's reelection, Landow got involved in a deal that caused him more public embarrassment than anything he'd yet done.
Michael Copperthite, a Democratic political operative, called Landow to ask him to help the impoverished Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma regain land seized by the federal government in 1869. Convinced by Democratic fund-raisers that a large contribution would grease the wheels of justice, the tribes had donated $107,000 to the Clinton-Gore campaign. That bought them a lunch with the president and a few dozen other contributors but no land. And the fund-raisers kept calling, soliciting more donations.
Landow, who had nothing to do with those solicitations, met with Copperthite and the tribes' representatives and steered them to the consulting firm of former Clinton-Gore campaign manager Peter Knight. At a meeting in February 1997, Knight's firm agreed to represent the tribes for a $100,000 retainer, plus $10,000 a month. Landow demanded that the tribes sign a development contract with him a deal that would give him 10 percent of all income produced by the recovered land for 20 years, including gas and oil revenues. When the tribes' lawyer, Rick Grellner, said he wasn't authorized to agree to the deal, Landow started screaming.
"It became an all-out verbal assault," Grellner recalls. "Every other word was a four-letter word."
"Landow said, 'If you don't do this deal, I'm gonna [expletive] you and you're not gonna get your land back,'" recalls Copperthite.
Grellner, too, recalls Landow making that threat. But in a sworn deposition, Landow denied yelling, cursing or threatening the tribal representatives. "Absolutely not," he said.
After a Post article exposed the tribes' tribulations, the consulting deal fell through, the DNC returned the tribe's contributions and the land has not been returned. Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs investigated the matter. In its report, the committee called the operation "sordid" the "fleecing" of the tribe by "a series of Democratic operators, who attempted to pick their pockets for legal fees, land development and additional contributions."
Landow insists that he did nothing wrong. "Everything I did," he says, "was in writing, fair, open and honest."
Still Moving and Shaking
Landow points to a blueprint propped on an easel. It's the design for a new kind of golf course a mini-course in which six holes are squeezed into 25 acres by sharing greens and fairways. He hasn't built this yet, but he's excited about the prospect.
"It will open up golf to inner-city kids," he says. "It opens it up to people who don't belong to country clubs. It opens it up to old people who maybe can't walk around an 18-hole course."
He bounds down a hallway lined with drawings of the buildings he's created. There's the Colonnade. Former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg used to live there, he says. So did Senator McClellan and Senator Talmadge. There's Prospect House in Virginia. Kate Smith lived there, he says.
He keeps moving, pointing out the offices of his sons, David and Michael, and his daughter, Harolyn. He divorced their mother in 1994, but the kids are still with him. He points out the office art paintings and statues of cowboys and Indians. He spends every August in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he says. "There's nothing to do there so you go into the art galleries and " He shrugs and smiles.
Back in his own office, he plops down in a big leather chair behind a huge wooden desk. He says the media frenzy over Willey has faded away. He's looking forward to raising money for the Gore campaign in 2000. "I can't say enough about Gore," he says. "I think he will be one of the best presidents this country has ever had."
He likes raising money. "It's fun," he says. "I've met a lot of great friends throughout the country that I've enjoyed being acquainted with and in some cases doing business with."
Despite all the controversies that his political activities have aroused the Nesline revelations, the Maryland party battles, the Indian affair, the Willey flap he still loves politics.
"I would recommend to people in my position in life to get involved in politics," he says. "It can be a very enjoyable undertaking."
His secretary calls to remind him that he's late for an appointment with his architect. He picks up some blueprints and heads for the door. He pauses. He has one request: He doesn't want his lawyer to know about this little chat.
"Don't tell Joe you talked to me," he says. "He'll kill me."
But he'll read about it in the newspaper, won't he?
"I'll tell him," he says, "that I talked to you before he told me not to." He smiles and heads for the door.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company