The week starts with Robert Bennett on Diane Rehm’s radio show, pitching his new memoir — a tell-some, not a tell-all, about his life as a lawyer.
The next day, the book is out, and 24 hours after that, Bennett’s on the “Today” show, telling host Matt Lauer almost nothing but looking awfully charming doing it. In the afternoon, he’s taking calls from power players and is trying to work his spin with another reporter who’s visiting his office.
Then comes Thursday. He spends the day trying to save John McCain’s campaign from disaster after reports that the GOP presidential candidate had an inappropriate relationship with a Washington, D.C., lobbyist.
Bennett, the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner and consummate Washington spinmaster, has had big weeks before — just ask Bill Clinton, Judith Miller and Paul Wolfowitz. But last week was, certainly, one of the biggest yet. He displayed all of the attributes that have made him the go-to-guy for the scandal-plagued: media savvy, political connections, legal know-how.
It’s why McCain turned to Bennett, even though the lawyer had investigated him during the Keating Five scandal of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“He really is, in some ways, the defining character of the criminal defense bar in Washington,” says W. Neil Eggleston, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton.
Bennett’s strategy in a scandal is laid out in his book, “In the Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer,” and if events last week were any indication, he followed the template to the letter.
When dealing with what he calls the “Washington scandal machine,” he counsels his clients to get out in front of the news. In fact, Bennett writes that “the DNA of any scandal — the valid ones and the ridiculous ones — is that they need, like Count Dracula, fresh blood every day to survive.”
In other words, he writes, “Whenever you are facing a crisis, whether justified or not, you get out all the facts, both good and bad, immediately.”
When the allegations about his relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman hit The New York Times last week, McCain immediately called a news conference for 9 a.m. the next day. He took more than 20 questions from reporters, denied the allegations and then blasted the Times for its story.
Bennett had been laying the groundwork. He met with the Times reporters several months ago and answered their questions about the Arizona senator’s involvement with Iseman. “We submitted a lot of information to them about why it wasn’t a good story, and that might have had an impact on it being held off,” he says. (The Times reportedly held the story for months.)
On Thursday, the day the story hit newsstands, Legal Times contacted Bennett. He was armed with his best anti-media spin: The story, he said, was unfair. “They don’t show that he ever breached the public trust. They don’t show that he did anything for this lady or her firm that he wouldn’t have otherwise done.”
THE PURPLE TIE
The day before, Bennett was sitting at a large table in his office at 14th Street and New York Avenue Northwest in D.C. The 68-year-old was decked out in Washington power lawyer armor — a black pinstriped suit and purple tie (he says the color is good luck). Fittingly for the former amateur boxer, giant portraits of Muhammad Ali, fists raised, line the wall above his bookcase, and two copies of David Remnick’s biography of Ali, “King of the World” — one hardcover and one paperback — sit on his bookshelf.
His own book is, not surprisingly, a very careful affair. It leaves out the juicy back-room details: There are no intimate conversations with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office or revelations about the inside negotiations that persuaded the Justice Department not to press criminal charges against Enron Corp.
What he is willing to tell is a story about process. In broad strokes, he talks about representing Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and about how he has helped companies and individuals navigate investigations by the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress.
“At this point in my career I have a wired-in diagram in my head about how this system works. I know the points to make and the points not to make,” he says.
The way he first makes his points is on a legal pad. The whole book was handwritten. His secretary had to type up the notes. In fact, Bennett, the media kingpin, has a hard time with technology. As he tries to play a tape of his “Today” appearance from earlier in the week, he struggles to work the VCR. He, occasionally, has trouble figuring out how to work his office phone, and he types his e-mails hunt-and-peck style.
As Bennett talks, he slaps the table for emphasis. He gets most voluble talking about representing the famous civil rights attorney, the late Joseph Rauh Jr. When Rauh punched his brother-in-law in the nose, Bennett represented him. (Rauh is the father of Carl Rauh, the longtime Skadden partner and colleague of Bennett.)
When it comes to current clients, though, he’s much more careful. Right now, he’s representing Daimler in a Federal Corrupt Practices Act investigation and Jose Rodriguez Jr., the former CIA officer, in the probe into the destruction of the CIA interrogation tapes. Rodriguez, by the way, was the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times on Feb. 20. Bennett was quoted in that article, too.
It’s a classic Bennett maneuver: Say only the things that you want to say and only in the forum that you’ve selected.
The forum is almost never a courtroom. When asked why he rarely steps into court, he snorts at the “old canard.” William Bennett, the conservative author, former secretary of education and Robert Bennett’s younger brother, says that when Bennett was growing up, his mother and stepfather paid him a nickel a day not to fight. According to William, Robert didn’t make very much money.
Clearly, Bennett has learned how to pick his battles.