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Saturday, February 03, 2007
Hilarious Washington Post Article about Lanny Davis
Life of a Salesman; Lanny Davis Has Pushed Everything From Amway to Himself. Now He's Pitching the Clintons.; FINAL Edition
Lloyd Grove. The Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: Dec 21, 1996. pg. B.01
Lanny Davis is full of surprises.
The new White House special counsel -- who assumed his duties last week as the chief defender on Whitewater, fishy fund-raising and other nettlesome issues -- is best known as a Montgomery County political activist who twice ran for Congress and as a $400,000-a-year partner in Patton Boggs, the powerhouse lobbying law firm.
But those prosaic labels, which declare "Washington professional," don't do justice to Davis's history as a composer and performer of musical theater, a pal of Gordon Liddy's, an owner of three now-defunct weekly newspapers -- and a salesman of Amway products.
After he narrowly lost a 1976 House race, Davis, 51, began evangelizing for the motivational door-to-door distribution company, which markets everything from toothpaste to telephone service. A prominent Maryland lawyer-lobbyist, who refused to speak for attribution, recalled that Davis once invited him to lunch to discuss a "business opportunity."
"We didn't order yet when he started talking, and it was like a switch went on," the lobbyist recounted. "He asked, `Are you interested in making more money?' Well, what lawyer isn't? `Do you want to be in control of your destiny?' And I go, `Wait a minute, Lanny -- is this an Amway pitch?'
"And he says, `Can I finish? I've got these wonderful products to show you.' So he opens this box from the front to reveal a beautiful array of multicolored bottles and packages of toothpaste, dishwashing soap and other stuff. And I said, `No, Lanny. Please. No demonstrations. Thank you and good luck.' I had to virtually push myself away from him, but I got up and left."
On the phone this week from the Old Executive Office Building -- where he's the lead salesman hawking the proposition that President and Hillary Rodham Clinton have done nothing wrong -- Davis said the encounter "never took place, and undoubtedly that's why the individual doesn't want to speak on the record."
But he acknowledged that during a six-month period years ago, before his association with the Amway Corp. started to make him uncomfortable, he may have tried to recruit the occasional lunch partner, and that he and his first wife, Elaine, invited unsuspecting friends and political associates to their home for high-pressure Amway pitch sessions.
In his current role as a White House staffer, Davis, as usual, is confounding conventional wisdom. To some of his new colleagues, the fact that the irrepressible, unpredictable Davis would suddenly have one of the Clinton White House's most sensitive responsibilities is startling.
As startling as the idea of a blue-chip Washington lawyer selling Amway products.
"I took this job because I believe in the Clintons, and I believe in my ability to help articulate all these issues as both a lawyer and somebody experienced in politics and the media," Davis said this week in his Spartan office, whose mustard walls were still naked (save a few protruding nails) since the departure weeks ago of the previous special counsel, Mark Fabiani.
Prominently displayed on Davis's pockmarked desk was a note from an old friend from Yale days. "I'm praying for you," wrote Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew.
"I genuinely believe that the facts are on our side in all these issues," Davis continued, "and that my experience will allow me to close the gap between perception and reality."
It was one of the very few of his remarks about himself that Davis permitted to be quoted. He was under White House orders to keep his on-the-record comments to a minimum, lest he be charged with self-promotion. It's a sin he's been accused of many times in the past.
"As a spokesperson, Lanny has done a good job on himself," said Mark Plotkin, a Davis admirer and political analyst for WAMU-FM, to which Davis contributed on-air commentaries until going to the White House. Plotkin added that among Davis's detractors, "the drift is that Lanny will do anything, even sacrifice his professional reputation and integrity, because Lanny is so desperate for the public attention." Plotkin said he disagrees with these assessments.
"I've met few people who are as interested in politics as he is -- I think he's consumed by it," said Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Andrew Sonner, a longtime denizen of Montgomery County politics. "He antagonizes some people, and you have to believe that it really bothers him. He wants to be liked."
After less than two weeks on the job -- which required him to resign from Patton Boggs and take a 75 percent pay cut -- Davis has begun to step into the limelight. This week, he was front and center speaking for the White House about Charles Yah Lin Trie, the Arkansas-based businessman who allegedly steered phony contributions to the president's legal defense fund. On Wednesday Davis, for the first time, appeared on television live from the White House -- "I just lost my virginity," he joked privately -- trying to put a positive spin on the Trie affair: It demonstrates the president's commitment to full disclosure, he argued in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
Still, a well-placed administration official has nicknamed him "Loose Cannon Lanny."
"Lanny has the reputation for being a publicity hound, and this ain't the job for that," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He has the reputation as a fellow who shoots from the lip, and it's also not the job for that. . . . When you consider what's at stake, and the scrutiny the White House is under, the care with which you have to deal with these issues is really very great." The official adds with a mirthless laugh, "I guess he'll last."
But a recent New York Times account of Davis's disastrous five-year venture into the newspaper business raised eyebrows and hackles in the West Wing. Davis jointly owned the Record Co. of Silver Spring until its failure in 1993, resulting in a lawsuit (since settled) and the loss of millions of dollars for Davis and his partners. Some at the White House were especially surprised that the Times quoted Davis comparing the Clintons' business dealings unfavorably with his own.
"My business partners were never accused or convicted of any crimes," Davis reminded readers of the Times. "No taxpayer money was ever lost by the loans." This from the man who is supposed to be convincing reporters of the relative unimportance of the Whitewater scandal.
"Lanny is an ambitious fellow, and he has been trying to get into the administration ever since it moved here from Little Rock," said a Clinton staffer. "Until now he's been unsuccessful."
Davis and the Clintons go back 25 years. At Yale Law School, Davis was friendly with Hillary Rodham, who was two years behind him, and he met Bill Clinton in the Connecticut campaigns of U.S. Senate candidate Joseph Duffy (unsuccessful) and state Senate candidate Lieberman (successful).
Both Clinton and Davis were losing congressional candidates in 1974, a shared experience on which they later compared notes. In December 1980, after Clinton was turned out of office as governor of Arkansas, he sought national committeeman Davis's support for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee -- a post he ultimately decided not to run for.
Last January, he became enraged at pundit William Safire for branding the first lady "a congenital liar." Davis concluded that somebody -- that is, himself -- should start making television appearances on behalf of the Clintons. He got in touch with Fabiani, who gladly provided him with a boxful of briefing materials. Soon Lynn Cutler, a Democratic political consultant, was booking him on TV shows as the White House's designated defender.
This year he's made dozens of appearances on radio and television, including six on CNN's "Crossfire," debating the likes of John Sununu and Robert Novak. Davis has told friends that the president sometimes stays up screening videotapes of his appearances. It was his defense of the Clintons last January on Geraldo Rivera's CNBC show that captured the president's imagination, Davis has said, adding that both Clintons have phoned him to thank him and cheer him on.
By most accounts, it was the president himself who insisted that Davis be named special counsel after Fabiani left last month. To some few White House staffers, it looked like an impulse buy. They have only begun to weigh the political and personal baggage that Davis acquired after a quarter-century among the Montgomery County Democrats, whose vicious battles and eternal resentments remind some of Bosnia.
The new special counsel represents a stylistic change as well. Where Fabiani was low-key, Davis is high-wattage. Where Fabiani was implacable, Davis is emotional. What's more, Davis has arrived at a time when the White House scandal management team, assembled by departing Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, has ceased to exist. Aside from Ickes and Fabiani, lawyer Jane Sherburne -- the resident expert on Whitewater and other problems -- and White House counsel Jack Quinn are also leaving.
"The institutional memory in this place is really going to be shockingly depleted," predicted a White House staffer. Davis's institutional memory is based on 11 months of television and radio debates.
But writer John Rothchild, Davis's former Yale classmate and colleague on the Yale Daily News -- where Davis beat Rothchild in the election for newspaper chairman -- said his old friend's maneuvering skills should not be underestimated.
"I'm quite sure," Rothchild quipped, "that Lanny has figured out where he stands in the line of presidential succession."
Davis grew up in Jersey City, N.J., the bright, striving son of ardent Democrats, a middle-class dentist and his wife. He attended an academically rigorous private school and went on to Yale College, where he immersed himself in campus journalism and graduated cum laude in 1967. He finished Yale Law School three years later and moved with his new wife to Maryland, throwing himself into the local political scene and earning his share of friends and enemies.
When he ran for Congress for the first time in 1974, he was derided by fellow Democrats as a carpetbagger who hadn't paid his dues. He lost the primary, but almost immediately launched his campaign for 1976.
"Back in the '70s, Lanny was a young, exceptionally bright, exceptionally attractive man who got to the top of the Montgomery County political mountain in a hurry," said former congressman Mike Barnes (D-Md.), who has known Davis since they worked together in the 1972 presidential campaign of Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. "I think there are still a lot of jealousies out there as a result."
He won the 1976 Democratic primary and was neck and neck with Republican Newton Steers until a controversy erupted over the portrayal of Davis's academic record in a campaign brochure. Davis claimed he had graduated from Yale Law School cum laude -- a designation the school didn't award in 1970, the year he finished.
"The law school said I had the grades but they just stopped designating cum laude that year and the year after," Davis explained to the Washington Star. "Who knew?"
"It was devastating," Barnes recalled. "The world doesn't need another story about Lanny's resume. Whatever the explanation for it, it was a very long time ago. We're talking about a different man today."
Davis, who was a lawyer at Arnold and Porter before moving to Patton Boggs in 1978, lived to fight another day.
"Lanny's not Teflon," said his longtime adversary Marge Stanley, a party activist whom Davis beat in 1980 for a seat on the Democratic National Committee. "I think maybe he's asbestos."
He told friends he became involved in Amway as a way of supporting his then-wife, Elaine, in her wish for challenging, interesting work. They hosted several meetings at their house. Following the Amway method, they didn't tell their guests the real purpose of the sessions until after they'd arrived.
Davis has said that he finally told his wife he could no longer deceive his friends and associates to lure them to Amway sessions. The marriage fell apart in 1982. Shortly thereafter he met and fell in love with Carolyn Atwell, a dancer in her early twenties whom he married two years later.
Davis won custody of his two children, Margo, now 28, and Seth, 26, raising them -- he has told friends -- as a real-life "Mr. Mom." His children, with whom he is close, like to tell stories of exploding turkeys and other culinary adventures as Davis learned his way around the kitchen.
At Patton Boggs, Davis has worked as a corporate litigator for such clients as Mars Inc., the Virginia-based candy behemoth, while his lobbying clients have included the government of Pakistan (he was hired to help resolve a dispute with the Pentagon over a $600 million sale of F-16 fighter jets); Ogden Projects Inc., an incinerator construction company; and Infinity Broadcasting.
Watergate felon Gordon Liddy, whose radio talk show is distributed by Infinity, recommended Davis to his bosses, who were embroiled in a fight with the Federal Communications Commission over another Infinity personality, Howard Stern.
"I think he was the right lawyer for the right problem at the right time," Liddy said, adding that Davis was his frequent on-air sparring partner in his role as Clinton champion. "He also happens to be a personal friend. My wife and I have been guests in his home."
While a few in the White House may not be convinced, Liddy said the Clintons are lucky to have Davis carrying their water.
"I think he's very well suited to the White House role. He was vigorously and articulately defending the Clintons on my program," Liddy said. "Lanny has the ability to defend the indefensible."