Collision Course For Bruce Lindsey?

It's getting hotter for the Clinton adviser as he gains clout

On Election Night, frenzied Clintonites cheered the President's victory speech outside the Old State House in Little Rock. But one adviser was nowhere to be found. A weary Bruce R. Lindsey had passed out in a chair in a nearby hotel suite. The Presidential confidant was roused from his slumber by a beeper message from his concerned daughter. The dazed dad agreed to meet his family for a victory dinner. At midnight. At the International House of Pancakes.

Not exactly the glamorous life of a Beltway insider. But that's the life of the 49-year-old Arkansas lawyer--who may be the President's best friend and most trusted adviser. While most Washington pols crave the limelight, Lindsey avoids it. He travels everywhere with Bill Clinton, plays hearts with the boss, yet eschews the usual trappings of power. And in a town of $1,000 suits, he prefers an old blazer.

Lindsey is also among the handful of the President's Arkansas buddies who haven't been expelled or exiled due to legal problems. And his clout is growing as Clinton increasingly turns to him to tackle sensitive missions, ranging from the American Airlines Inc. pilot walkout to the current talks between tobacco giants, state attorneys general, and public health advocates. Trouble is, just as his policy portfolio expands, he's facing growing scrutiny from the Justice Dept., independent counsel, and Congress. Those probes threaten not only to pull Lindsey from his preferred role in the White House shadows but also to increasingly divert his attention from delicate behind-the-scenes assignments.

Known at the White House as "The Minesweeper," for his ability to help Clinton avoid dangerous traps, and "Il Consigliere," for his trusted counselor role, Lindsey declined to talk to BUSINESS WEEK. Within the Clinton inner circle, his role is unquestioned. "Lindsey follows orders," says former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, who has known him for more than 15 years. "He does it with skill and tact and even a certain amount of cunning."

His relationship with Clinton dates to 1968, when both worked for Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. In 1980, after Clinton's gubernatorial reelection defeat, Lindsey first helped him land a job at his family's law firm, then helped him plot a comeback.

STRUCK OUT. Early in the Administration, some Clintonites viewed the reserved Lindsey as less of a Clinton adviser than a sidekick. But Lindsey's role began to change in 1994 with an attempt to mediate an end to baseball's bitter player strike. While the effort failed, the President was so impressed with his cool demeanor and discretion that he assigned his old pal to monitor tort reform efforts on Capitol Hill. It was Lindsey who advised Clinton to veto legislation limiting securities litigation and product-liability awards. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and small-business owners howled. But the trial lawyers' PACs chipped in more than $2.1 million to Democratic coffers in '96.

This winter, Clinton assigned Lindsey to try to head off a threatened strike by American Airlines pilots. Following a brief Feb. 15 walkout, the dispute was settled after a cooling-off period recommended by Lindsey. American President Donald J. Carty calls Lindsey "a very reasonable and very intelligent guy."

His new assignment as White House point man in the tobacco talks is even more delicate. He's sometimes in hourly contact with lawyers. And when not at the negotiating table, Lindsey is the de facto Clinton voice. He'll advise the President on a key issue: signing off on any settlement capping tobacco liability claims in exchange for a huge cash settlement and federal regulation of tobacco sales, marketing, and production.

Lindsey's style is low-key but direct, say participants in the talks. "With Bruce, you always know you're getting good information--even if he disagrees with you," says one. His bottom line: Any settlement must protect children from tobacco and be acceptable to the public health community. "People deal with him because they know the President has complete faith in him and he will deliver a message in an evenhanded way," says colleague Douglas B. Sosnik.

"CLEANSING"? Still, Lindsey faces storms ahead. Republicans feel he hasn't been completely frank about his involvement in Clinton controversies from Travelgate to Filegate. A congressional investigator says probers are exploring Lindsey's possible role in soliciting Asian money for Democrats and Clinton's legal defense fund--and his presence at White House meetings with fund-raising figures such as John Huang and James Riady.

Hill Republicans suspect Lindsey--who oversaw White House document-gathering in response to congressional subpoenas--may be "cleansing" the documents to keep information from the panels. A year ago, GOP House probers of the 1993 White House travel office firings accused him of "absolutely ridiculous" behavior to avoid questioning. Lindsey said he was seeking clarification of ground rules for his testimony.

Lindsey may face new questions from Whitewater prosecutors about his numerous conversations with Clinton buddy Webster Hubbell in the eight months after Hubbell pleaded guilty to bilking legal clients and partners. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is examining whether Lindsey or other top White House aides enticed Hubbell to protect the Clintons. "Republicans think of him as a bagman for Bill Clinton," says a source close to Hill GOP leadership. The White House insists no attempt was made to hush up Hubbell.

It's Lindsey's second brush with Starr. Last year, the 1990 Clinton campaign treasurer was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the trial of two Arkansas bankers accused of hiding cash withdrawals used to fund personal loans to Clinton. The bankers were cleared. Lindsey denied wrongdoing.

For now, Lindsey isn't losing sleep over the assaults. "It's a tough work environment, but he thrives on life in the pressure cooker," says Skip Rutherford, a friend and former Arkansas Democratic chair. But as the investigative spotlight intensifies, Lindsey may find it difficult to remain in the shadows.

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