To many, it's the worst job in Washington--defending Bill and Hillary Clinton against assaults over Whitewater and Donorgate. The daunting daily routine: jousting with skeptical reporters, dodging hostile fire from Hill GOP foes, and squeezing smidgens of truth from tight-lipped Clintonites.
So why is Maryland lawyer and Democratic activist Lanny J. Davis so enthusiastic about taking on the job of White House special counsel? Friends say his fierce devotion to his longtime friends, the Clintons, and a love of political combat explain why the Administration's new scandal spinmeister couldn't wait to report for duty on Dec. 9.
MESSAGE. Davis, 50, a partner at Washington's powerhouse Patton Boggs LLP, says he's "totally convinced" of the Clintons' Whitewater innocence. And the self-confessed workaholic, whose new $100,000 salary represents a steep pay cut, is itching to take on critics. "The negative on me is that I'm an attack dog," he chuckles. "I am a pit bull when it comes to people who dwell on speculation and innuendo."
The choice of the aggressive Davis to replace the low-key Mark D. Fabiani, who left voluntarily after the election to direct a California-based charitable foundation, gives an indication of just how eager the Clintons are to avoid a crippling ethics scandal. "The message is that they expect [Republican] attacks and they are preparing for a defense," says Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has known Davis for nearly 30 years. Even Davis says the President is "frustrated" at what he sees as "the gap between perception and reality."
In some ways, Davis' selection mystifies many insiders. Though a skilled litigator, he is a relatively small-time regional pol and a twice-failed congressional candidate. "He gives `hack' a bad name," huffs Republican National Committee Communications Director Ed Gillespie.
Democratic detractors, too, call Davis arrogant and hyperambitious and point to controversies during his congressional campaigns, including 1976 literature that incorrectly described him as a cum laude Yale law grad. "Lanny is a very talented person who does himself in because he's a little too slick and always says one thing too many," says Maryland developer Blair Lee, a longtime Democratic foe. Davis acknowledges "honest mistakes" two decades ago but says he has never deliberately misled anyone.
SCHOOL CHUMS. Davis' relationship with the Clintons dates to their Yale Law School days, when he and Bill Clinton campaigned for antiwar Connecticut Democrats. They remet in 1980, when Clinton contemplated running for Democratic National Committee chairman. Davis pledged his support and began contributing to Clinton campaigns.
Comfortable with his roles as lawyer, lobbyist, and local radio commentator, Davis says he never considered a White House job. But when The New York Times's William Safire denounced Hillary Clinton as "a congenital liar" in a Jan. 9 column, "I got pissed off," recalls Davis. He called Fabiani and, at his own suggestion, appeared on national TV and radio to defend his friends.
While the First Family clearly is comfortable with having a buddy as their ethics apologist, aides say there was more to Davis' selection. White House Press Secretary Michael D. McCurry notes that the President "wanted someone smart, savvy, press-friendly, and a lawyer who knows the legal issues." Davis fits the bill, says former Montgomery County (Md.) Democratic Chairman Stanton Gildenhorn. "He can put legal issues into language that people understand," Gildenhorn says.
Credibility, though, is the key. Fabiani's was damaged after he lost an internal White House debate over releasing explanations of meetings between the President and Democratic donor James T. Riady. The White House initially said the chats were social, but it later was revealed that foreign policy and trade issues were mentioned.
As a longtime family friend, Davis may avoid some of those frustrations. But he'll need all his persuasive skills to convince Hill Republicans and suspicious journalists that he's not simply a pit bull hired to protect the guilty.