Clinton flak catcher is Md. political bird Montgomery's Davis took wing defending friend Bill on 'Geraldo'

April 16, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Lanny J. Davis walks the halls with a frown on his face -- even when he's just lost in thought -- his fellow White House staffers shudder. "Uh-oh, what's wrong?" they ask. "Are we going to have a bad day?"

In tough times -- Davis' specialty -- most avoid him. "It's like I'm a walking dead man," he says. Afterward, when the bad stuff is all over the news, sympathetic colleagues pat him on the back and console him, saying: "You've got the worst job in this place."

Davis is the White House flak catcher. It's his job to answer allegations of presidential wrongdoing on matters ranging from Whitewater to campaign fund raising. His title is "special White House counsel." His duties are called "crisis management." Those who have held the job before him have another name for it: "Scandal Patrol."

President Clinton's allies and critics agree it's a difficult job, but Davis, a 51-year-old Democratic activist from Maryland, a seasoned Washington litigator -- and certified Friend of Bill and Friend of Hillary -- had no illusions about what he was getting into. In December, Davis asked Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry, exactly where McCurry's job ended and his began.

McCurry smiled and replied, "Lanny, ever see that bumper sticker, 'Stuff Happens?' Well, when 'stuff happens,' it's yours."

For Davis, it started when he read a opinion piece in which the first lady was called a "congenital liar" by conservative New York Times columnist William Safire.

"It crystallized what I thought was wrong with the coverage of the Clintons," Davis says. "Someone takes a certain fact or allegation, stretches it, multiplies it by 10 -- and then extrapolates on that."

A political junkie since his law school days when he and fellow Yalie Bill Clinton volunteered on local New Haven-area campaigns, Davis did what any right-minded FOB would do: He wrote a blistering response to the Times.

The Times didn't publish it, but Lanny Davis was on the case.

He called Lynn Cutler, who was heading a group of Democrats defending Hillary Rodham Clinton. And Cutler enlisted him to debate conservatives, talk up reporters and rebut charges against the first lady.

It was after his passionate defense of the Clintons on CNN's "Crossfire" that the White House began feeling Davis out as a possible replacement for Mark Fabiani, who, along with the rest of the burned-out Scandal Patrol team, was leaving after the election.

A partner at the Washington law firm of Patton Boggs and with a fancy house in Potomac, Davis was making three times the $100,000 salary the White House job pays.

The hours he'd put in defending Clinton were terrible, the criticism considerable and the working conditions odd: The Scandal Patrol doesn't even have a receptionist.

But Davis' father had recently died, and that sad event seems to have made a difference in his son's thinking.

"It may be hard to understand in this era of cynicism, but my dad thought the noblest thing I could do was go into public service and help people," Davis says. "The shame is that I did it two months after he died."

Davis' first weeks were rocky. One weekend, his handling of questions from a Washington Post reporter about Clinton's legal defense fund resulted in an embarrassing headline about how the White House changed its story three times in one day -- and a chewing out by White House counsel Jack Quinn and by Bruce Lindsey, who is closer personally to Clinton than anyone else on the White House staff.

After he tried to defend White House fund-raising coffees on ABC's "Nightline," some colleagues complained anonymously to reporters about Davis' performance.

McCurry, incensed by the backbiting, prevailed on White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles to buck up Davis with a phone call.

Then, at a staff meeting the following week, Davis received a gift-wrapped box from Clinton. It contained a tie adorned with a ++ defiant inscription in Latin, along with a personal note from the president: "Hang in there."

Davis was heartened; McCurry relieved. "Lanny is at the fulcrum point where the White House contends with negative stories -- and a White House press corps with a voracious appetite for those stories," McCurry says. "And he does it with a great respect for the president, the presidency and the job the press has to do."

Several past and present White House aides say that those sniping at Davis were part of the problem themselves. Davis and McCurry, for instance, were instructed by higher-ups to deny that the coffees were fund-raising events -- even after White House documents showed them to be exactly that. The problem appears to be that the Clintons often withhold pertinent facts from those being sent out to defend them.

In addition, when Fabiani and his boss, Jane Sherburne, were hired in January 1995, they were given a team of lawyers to supplement them -- and months to formulate strategies and procedures.

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