`The Ideal Client Is A Rich Man Who Is Scared'


By Evan Thomas

Simon & Schuster -- 587pp -- $27.50

Just months before Edward Bennett Williams' death in 1988, he lunched with Washington superlawyers Robert Strauss and Clark Clifford. The meeting was a sad affair, as the famed defense lawyer's friends realized that he was losing his long fight with cancer.

What Strauss and Clifford didn't know was that their days in Washington's power circles were ending, too. Strauss, once Democratic National Committee chairman, would become ambassador to the Soviet Union -- in time to see the post rendered irrelevant by the nation's splintering. Clifford's reputation would be tarnished in the Bank of Credit & Commerce International scandal.

The death of Williams, the man the moneyed and powerful paid $1,000 an hour to fix their problems, brought down the curtain on an era in Washington. It stretched from the 1940s and America's ascendancy to superpower status to the start of the country's economic decline. It was a time when power brokers such as Williams could solve a legal problem with a discreet call to the Justice Dept.

When Williams hit town in 1941, from Irish working-class East Hartford, Conn., he had $12 in his pocket. At his death, he was worth more than $100 million and had owned both the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Orioles. He had represented clients ranging from Senator Joseph R. McCarthy to junk-bond maestro Michael R. Milken, finding time also to counsel The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers and tycoon Marvin Davis on his purchase of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.

Evan Thomas, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, has chronicled this headline-filled life in a richly anecdotal biography, The Man to See. He has not overlooked Williams' dark side -- the drinking, the partying with the demimonde, and the sometimes questionable ethics. The only disappointment is his failure to probe contradictions in Williams' character more deeply. For all the hard living, Williams was a devout Catholic -- and devoted to his family. He was as close to power as anyone in Washington, yet never held a government post. He seemed as comfortable defending mafiosi as representing the Catholic Church. Thomas writes of his "Irish Catholic's deep pessimism about the essential sinfulness of man and an equally great faith in the power of redemption."

Williams started out defending insurers in streetcar-injury cases for the law firm of Hogan & Hartson. But what excited him were court-appointed criminal cases, even though defending locals charged with crimes of passion was hardly lucrative.

Striking out on his own, he was soon defending the Atlas Club, a raffish Washington hangout, in a congressional probe of gaming clubs. Among the den's patrons was blue-blooded journalist Ben Bradlee, who would become one of his closest friends as well as executive editor of The Washington Post. The turning point for Williams came in 1950, when Joe McCarthy, with whom he shared a distaste for Harvard-educated WASPs, hired him to fight a defamation suit brought by columnist Drew Pearson. Four years later, Williams sat at McCarthy's side as the Senate censured him.

Although McCarthy's career was in decline, Williams' was about to soar. Newspapers praised his cool-headed work for the hot-headed senator, and famous clients started rolling in: underworld boss Frank Costello, union leader Jimmy Hoffa, and flamboyant Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In time, Williams would echo the words of his first wife's grandfather, the founder of Hogan & Hartson: "The ideal client is a rich man who is scared."

In helping these men, Williams sealed his reputation as the top criminal lawyer of his generation. He garnered power as well as publicity. During the Kennedy era, his friendship with Clifford, the New Dealer who later became Lyndon Johnson's Defense Secretary, gave him an entree. Clifford referred clients to Williams when they found themselves ensnared in white-collar prosecutions.

Williams' reputation as a fixer grew in the 1960s. For Jack Kennedy he checked out Roy Cohn, under investigation by brother Bobby's Justice Dept. He represented Johnson aide Bobby Baker in an influence-peddling trial. On Williams' advice, Baker took the Fifth Amendment 120 times. Williams would advise clients to stick to their stories and not cut deals with prosecutors who divided defendants by granting immunity to lesser figures for testimony. "You can hang together," he'd say. "Or we can hang together."

By the 1980s, Williams had power, prestige, and money. His clients now came from the business world: Gulf & Western Corp.'s Charles Bluhdorn, whom he successfully defended in a securities-fraud investigation, and Victor Posner, the Miami Beach raider who pleaded guilty to tax fraud but avoided prison.

And, of course, there was Williams' last client, Michael Milken. What might have been, had Williams lived? Would he have counseled Milken to fight rather than plead guilty? No one knows. But what's certain, based on the career Thomas has so ably sketched, is that it would have been a hell of a finale.

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