- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

Chances are that when the obituary writers get around to Robert S. Bennett (hopefully not for years to come) the first graph will cite him as the lawyer who nursed Bill Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and helped save him from being booted from office.

Such is a pity, for the Clinton mess was only a minor part of a distinguished legal career during which Mr. Bennett became known as the “go-to” lawyer for a wide range of persons in trouble with the law. His memoir, “In The Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer,” is the best legal read I’ve encountered in decades.

Mr. Bennett’s reputation rests, in large part, on the realization by opposing lawyers (usually prosecutors) that he is quite willing to go to trial if he and his client cannot negotiate what they want. He learned to try cases in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the U.S. Attorney’s office here in DC, and he is a good man with a jury. He now earns a many-digit income with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, an international megafirm whose per-lawyer earnings are tops in the country.

Mr. Bennett worked hard to reach the pinnacle of his profession. A Brooklyn native, he grew up in a dysfunctional household dominated by a hectoring grandmother who essentially drove his father out of the house. His mother remarried, to a drunk. He found refuge in boxing (hence his title), debate and the Brooklyn Dodgers, plus caring relatives and neighbors.

Thus he writes with affection about what surely were tough years for a young man. Mr. Bennet does not come across as a fellow who sits around feeling sorry for himself. He earned law degrees both from Georgetown University and Harvard.

What is at hand is a case-by-case look at the events that made Mr. Bennett a major figure in the Washington legal community. Mr. Bennett seldom permits himself even a faint ding of doubt that his clients were innocent. And the cold rage he occasionally feels towards prosecutors roils the surface.

This is particularly true in his examination of the perjury indictment brought against Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger during the Iran-Contra arms scandal.

Weinberger opposed the sales from the beginning, and so argued in memos to President Ronald Reagan. Weinberger initially cooperated with special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, only to be threatened with indictment if he did not give testimony against the president. “I will not lie to get out of this,” Weinberger told Mr. Bennett. “Tell them to go to hell.”

Whereupon Mr. Walsh had a grand jury indict him, and then turned the prosecution over to a prominent San Francisco liberal Democrat, James Brosnahan, who refused even to discuss the case. President George H. W. Bush, to his lasting credit, pardoned Weinberger and other officials who had been caught up in the scandal.

“Walsh’s prosecution of Weinberger was one of the greatest abuses of prosecutorial power I have ever encountered,” Mr. Bennett writes. He detests the special prosecutor system. Better to appoint a career (and nonpolitical) special counsel when the need arises. “With an independent counsel, you are stuck with one all-powerful person who has only one case and unlimited resources with which to pursue it … . Beware the lawyer with only one case.”

Mr. Bennett also makes a strong argument that veteran Washington superlawyer and former defense secretary Clark Clifford, now deceased, was unjustly abused in the BCCI banking scandal. Federal and New York prosecutors accused Clifford and law partner Robert Altman of covertly helping the Bank of Credit and Commerce International to acquire the Washington bank First American Bankshares, Inc.

Although Clifford was literally a dying man, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, Jr., of New York refused to delay his trial. Only when Clifford underwent open heart surgery did Mr. Morgenthau back away and drop the charges. The case against Altman was so weak that the defense did not even call any witnesses. Mr. Bennett considers his acquittal a de facto acquittal of Clifford as well.

Mr. Bennett asserts that many of these and other headline-commanding cases are pushed by prosecutors because of pressures from a scandal-hungry media. “Media coverage in high-profile cases is almost always negative,” Mr. Bennett writes. “I have found it ironic that the media, which is usually cynical of government action regarding most issues, becomes unquestioningly supportive of the government when it charges a high-profile person or company with criminal wrongdoing.

“It doesn’t seem to matter if the defendant has a reputation for honesty and integrity built up over many years. There is something about seeing the mighty fall that whets the appetite of the media, and with a pack mentality, they pile on much like wolves chasing a wounded deer.”

Now, a word about that Clinton matter. Persons who followed the Lewinsky scandal will find little new in Mr. Bennett’s account — understandable, given the strictures on client confidentiality. One big mystery to me (and also to better-informed legal observers) was why Mr. Clinton’s legal team simply did not pay off Paula Jones at the outset of the sexual harassment suit that brought other presidential sexual misconduct into the open.

Were Mr. Bennett and other lawyers calling the shots — or were big decisions made by the Clintons? Mr. Bennett’s first interview when he was asked to aid the defense was an hour-long interview with First Lady Hillary. “It was obvious that she was very knowledgeable about the several matters under investigation and she asked me several questions as to how I thought they should be handled,” Mr. Bennett writes.

Ultimately, Mr. Bennett’s role would be to defend Mr. Clinton from personal attack, a role that neither David Kendall, the president’s personal lawyer, nor Lloyd Cutler, the White House counsel, wished to assume. Thus it was Mr. Bennett who called the Jones lawsuit “tabloid trash with a legal caption on it.”

Was the representation that Mr. Bennett and Mr. Kendall gave the president successful? In a sense, yes, for Mr. Clinton avoided being removed from office. The price, however, was his impeachment and disbarment, and a payment to Ms. Jones of almost a million dollars to settle her suit. But several lawyers have argued to me that had the Clintons not been so stubborn, the case could have been resolved without causing a national trauma.

Given his heavy representation of media people, usually for book deals, it seems only natural that Bennett would defend Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter jailed for contempt in the Valerie Plame leak case. Here he found himself at odds with Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., who he suggests was more interested in posturing as a defender of press freedom than in getting Ms. Miller out of an uncomfortable Alexandria jail.

Read Mr. Bennett on the third-generation publisher, and one understands why he is known in the Times newsroom as “Sulzberger The Lesser” — and the term is not one of affection. Mr. Bennett feels the Times treated his client shabbily, and he makes a convincing case.

Predictably, Mr. Bennett closes with advice to younger lawyers that should be heeded. It is a given that he would write that “the single most important quality a lawyer must have is a reputation for honesty and integrity.” But equally important is his assertion. “You can never allow the practice of law to smother your personal relationships. It cannot replace the companionship of your loved ones.” Having written about workaholic lawyers for decades, I can only intone a sincere, “Amen.”

A brilliantly entertaining work, both for the lawyer and the layman.

Joe Goulden’s books include “The Superlawyers.” His e-mail address is JosephG894@ aol.com.


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