WASHINGTON -- Nathan Landow, the latest figure caught up in the web of the Clinton investigations, is a wealthy Maryland developer who is well known in Democratic circles for his prodigious fund-raising ability, his hard-nosed style and his knack for turning up in political hot spots.
Since muscling his way into the top echelons of the national party in the 1980s, mainly by giving huge sums of money, Landow has made fierce friends as well as dedicated enemies. Some regard him as a windbag and a bully. Defenders portray him as a man of uncommon generosity and as a political visionary who all but discovered Al Gore and helped show the Democrats how to recapture the White House.
To both friend and foe, the former Maryland Democratic Party chairman brings to mind Winston Churchill's characterization of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: "a bull who carried his china closet with him."
Mark Siegel, a lobbyist and Landow friend, says that may be true, but that the developer's tenacity has a certain charm.
"He's doesn't pretend to be your friend and stick it in your back," Siegel says. "In fact, most of the time, you can tell where he stands by the decibel level in the room and the color of his face."
Landow, 65, has shown up on the periphery of several of the crises that have dogged President Clinton. Most recently, he has been subpoenaed by the lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones, who is suing Clinton for sexual misconduct.
The Bethesda developer also expects to be called by Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who is investigating whether Landow helped obstruct justice by urging a former White House volunteer named Kathleen Willey not to tell Jones' lawyers that Clinton had groped her.
Landow denies it -- and says with customary pugnaciousness that he's fixing to sue ABC News and Newsweek, which first linked him to an effort to persuade Willey to keep silent.
Landow understands that he rubs some people the wrong way. But he doesn't appear to lose any sleep over it.
"I'm comfortable with everything I've ever done in politics," he said in an interview. "When you institute change, you gotta make some enemies. I did both."
Early in this decade, when Landow was running the Maryland Democratic Party with a top- down -- some would say bullying -- style, Mary Jo Neville, a Baltimore Democratic activist, received an unexpected call from Landow.
"I was just a little grass-roots party activist, a guppy," Neville recalls. "He was a big fish, the chairman of the party. Suddenly, one day he called me, screaming and hollering, telling me I couldn't be trusted and saying he was gonna get me. 'What did I do?' I asked him. He would never even tell me. I was just stunned."
Landow and his allies don't deny this story. They just say it's not a complete picture.
"Everybody has their detractors, but he's the best Democratic ,, chairman Maryland has ever seen," says Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis lawyer who was deputy party chairman under Landow. "He ran it like a business. He ruffled some feathers. So what? He's a guy who came up the hard way, built an empire and does things his way. You always know where you stand with Nate."
Landow, who was born in Orange, N.J., moved to Maryland as a child. In 1959, he attended the University of Maryland for a year, then transferred to an accounting school. After taking a correspondence course in blueprint reading, he borrowed money from relatives and entered the building trades.
His specialty was building -- and hanging onto -- apartment buildings. Today, he says, his management company holds title to about 5,000 to 6,000 units. He is a millionaire many times over.
Landow's start in politics came in 1975, when Robert S. Strauss, the National Democratic Party chairman, called to say that a candidate named Jimmy Carter had failed to raise much money in Maryland.
"I put together a little group at my house, and I think we raised $60,000 that night," Landow recalls. "Since then, they've never forgotten my phone number."
By 1984, he was part of an elite group of money men who spent election night at the headquarters hotel of Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale. That night -- as the returns pointed to a landslide loss -- the money men decided that in 1988 they were going to find a centrist candidate who shared their views and who might have a chance to win. They settled on a candidate named Al Gore.
The next year, Landow took control of the Maryland state party -- and promptly began feuding with the old guard on the state and national level. His vendetta against the national party chairman, the late Ronald H. Brown, earned the Maryland delegation rafter seats at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, where Landow bickered publicly with Gov. William Donald Schaefer over who would take the microphone and deliver Maryland's delegates to the Clinton-Gore team (the governor won).