Newsreal: When the best defense isn't a good offense

Clinton's lawyer finds that his take-no-prisoners approach may be the wrong strategy to use against Paula Jones.

Published June 20, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Robert S. Bennett, President Clinton's high-profile defense attorney, recently appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Smiling slightly, head bobbing, Bennett seemed every bit the smooth, media-savvy lawyer, deftly defending his client from charges that he dropped his drawers in front of Paula Jones. As the interview drew to a close, host Tim Russert asked his guest what he thought of threats, issued by Jones' lawyers, to dredge up Clinton's sexual exploits.

"You know, it's a two-way street," Bennett said. "I'll tell you, I've talked to the troopers ... We've thoroughly investigated the case. If Paula Jones insists on having her day in court and her trial, and she really wants to put her reputation at issue as we hear, we are prepared to do it."

Bennett excels at putting the fear of God into adversaries, but so far his strategy in this case has backfired. Jones' lawyers called his remarks a cheap shot, journalists wondered how the public would respond to Bennett's tactics and, as if on cue, powerful women's lobbies blasted the president -- and his mouthpiece -- for even raising the issue of Jones' sex life. The next day Bennett ran for cover, tail between legs, telling any reporter within earshot that he was not "a fool" and would not dig up Jones' sexual history.

Bennett is possibly the best lawyer in Washington, a feisty advocate at ease with powerful pols facing criminal indictments and million-dollar civil suits. Bennett's lost only two cases -- in his career. Bennett's real strength, though, is outside the courtroom, where he wages PR blitzkriegs on behalf of clients, spoon-feeds stories to reporters, out-maneuvers opponents in pre-trial legal wrangling and cuts deals -- the perfect man, it would seem, to represent a sitting president with a reputation for extramarital nooky in a sexual harassment suit.

Or maybe not.

Paula Jones is on something of a comeback tour, winning friends and influencing journalists. Suddenly her potent adversaries -- such as James Carville, who once suggested Jones was "trailer trash" -- seem weak, spindly elitists dumping on women and workers. Last week New Republic editor Michael Kelly even blasted Clinton for waging a kind of class warfare against Jones. Though the PR battle is far from over, Bennett's lagging behind. And the very weapons he's deployed in past campaigns -- publicity blitzes and strong-armed barbs -- seem ill-suited to defending a scandal-prone commander-in-chief hungry for public support.

Bennett got his start in the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C., befriending other young colleagues with a place in their hearts for white-collar crime. Later Bennett spent some time at Hogan & Hartson, an old-line D.C. law firm, but his flamboyant style -- he favors fat cigars and brightly colored suspenders -- clashed with the firm's stodgy elders, and in 1975 he left. By the early '80s Bennett was earning megabucks defending giant corporations and moonlighting as counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee -- his first real taste of the limelight. During the Abscam and Keating Five scandals, Bennett served as a kind of in-house prosecutor, investigating unethical senators and railing against corrupt politicians on national TV. Ultimately, though, he seemed to prefer defending the rich and famous -- keeping them out of jail, reputations intact.

Bennett, whose brother William is the former drug-czar-turned-moralist, grew up in a Brooklyn Irish-Catholic family, a pugnacious boy so prone to street fights that his mom promised him a nickel every time he avoided scrapes on his way home from school. Though he hasn't had a brawl in years, Bennett's instincts have served him well in the rough-and-tumble world of Washington politics, where he has plied his trade for Clinton pal Harold Ickes and Dan Rostenkowski, among others. In 1992, while defending Caspar Weinberger during the Iran-contra scandal, Bennett maneuvered brilliantly behind the scenes, waging what he called "nuclear war" against independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Bennett convinced key senators to go to bat publicly for Weinberger, softened up public opinion for his client and, according to Walsh, scared President Bush (by threatening to call Bush to the witness stand) into issuing an 11th-hour, Christmas Eve pardon -- thus administering the coup de grbce to Walsh's six-year probe.

The Paula Jones case is Bennett's biggest to date, a politically explosive mixture of sex, troopers and presidential private parts (which Bennett vows to defend all the way to the Supreme Court). Generally Bennett has been impressive on the tube, touting Clinton's accomplishments ("the president of the United States had one heck of a week last week. We're not at war. The economy is fantastic. NATO has been expanded") while dismissing Jones as a money-grubber kowtowing to right-wing zealots. And he has established himself as presidential spokesman, advisor, confidante ("The president ... adamantly denies [the allegation] ... He's done it through me. And I talked to him last night and he said, 'Bob, make it clear'").

Bennett specializes in attracting attention to his clients, a valuable commodity in many cases. But not here: The last thing Clinton needs is another article about his wiener. Bennett seems not to grasp this. As some observers have suggested, he is too much the talking head, popping up on "Larry King Live" and Don Imus, keeping his client on the front page. Even during his damage-control media tour, Bennett had trouble holding back, at one point promising ABC's Ted Koppel that if Jones insisted on having her day in court, he would wage -- guess what? -- "nuclear war."

Bennett's biggest problem, though, is a public that hasn't cottoned to his bare-knuckles strategy. Last weekend, shortly before his "Meet the Press" fiasco, Bennett stepped outside his home and likened the president's accuser to a dog playing in traffic: "I had a dog like that who just wanted to catch cars, and he successfully caught one one day, and I have a new dog. So if they're insisting on proceeding, we'll proceed." Those tactics have worked wonders against zealous special prosecutors and crime-hungry DAs in pinstripes. But against a 30-year-old mother of two?

Women seem to find Bennett's win-at-all-costs mentality especially noxious. NOW's Patricia Ireland said she was disappointed "to see him falling back on the so-called 'nuts or sluts' strategy." She called Bennett's threats offensive, and then issued one of her own: "Although [Clinton] cannot run again, he is, after all, the first president to have been elected with such crucial support from women, and his natural constituency is going to be turned off by these kinds of attacks and warnings." Anita Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, told me that Bennett's comments were a "tremendous problem," especially, she added, if they were the "beginning of a road show that Bennett plans to exhibit."

As last week's uproar suggests, most folks don't want the president of the United States rooting around in Jones' sexual past. The public, in other words, wants restraint -- not one of Bennett's fortes. Like a five-star general spoiling for battle, Bennett seems eager to bring out the big guns and blast away. But if Clinton is to have a good shot at beating Jones -- in court or out -- his lawyer needs to set aside the heavy artillery and keep his finger off the flashing red button.

By Matthew Dallek

Matthew Dallek, an associate academic director at the University of California Washington Center, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics"

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