Tell Geoffrey Fieger he seems like an opportunist and he doesn't get too angry. He doesnt even bother to put a lot of energy into denying it. "What I do," he says, "all comes from the heart."
Yet Fieger's had an uncanny ability to make news, becoming a sort of trial-happy Forrest Gump, with predictable cameos in any one of the burning social issues of the day. Since representing celebrity euthanizer Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the early 1990s, he's been an almost constant TV presence. In 1998, he came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination for Michigan governor, before being trounced by Gov. John Engler, 62 to 38 percent, becoming exhibit A for government watchdogs who complain that enough money can get anybody a big political nomination.
Naughty "Seinfield" references at the watercooler? Fieger won a $21 million verdict in 1999 against DaimlerChrysler for a woman who claims she was shown obscene cartoons and Polaroid photos at work. TV talk schlock? Last year he successfully won a $25 million settlement for the family of a gay man who was shot to death after revealing that he was sexually attracted to another man on The Jenny Jones Show.
And school killings? He represents the family of Isaiah Shoels, the young black man killed during the Columbine school shootings, in what would be a precedent-setting case seeking monetary damages from the parents of Dylan Kleybold and Eric Harris, the teen gunmen.
Then on Tuesday, he received a crowning achievement of sorts when George W. Bush invoked Fieger's name no less than five times during Bush's brief concession speech. Bush blamed Fieger for running attack ads in Michigan, which referred to Engler and Bush as "dumb and dumber." We asked him about why he seems so obsessed with the public spotlight.
You must have been happy when George W. Bush blamed, in part, your ad campaign for driving up the Democratic vote in Michigan.
Now that I've been exposed as part of a the vast left-wing conspiracy, I'm ready to talk. I'm pretty sure theres an obsession with me from Engler and now Bush.
You seem to be pretty obsessed with Engler yourself. Aren't you afraid you look like sort of a bad sport?
I'm just upset that someone so utterly incompetent, so utterly hypocritical and so utterly devoid of any ability to lead or conceptualize anything is in charge of the state. I can't help it.
What really motivated the ads was that the Bush campaign launched ads with a voice-over by Engler, and the very tenor of his voice drove me to it. It amazes me that any reasonable person can listen to it and not think, "Is this guy a simpleton or what?" Engler claims responsibility for Michigans economic success, which of course is still based on the automobile, which reacts to the national economy. We were in the right place at the right time; it had nothing to do with him.
How much did you spend on the ads?
The money is irrelevant. It was my money, and a few other people's. The issue is more important than the money. I'll leave it at that.
You raised a certain concern among McCain supporters that your ads might actually repress Democratic turnout, because plenty of Democrats just don't like you, either.
I got a lot of people tell me they really related to those ads. People understand my antipathy toward Mr. Engler, both intellectually and personally. He has no appreciation of the arts, no appreciation of the needs of minorities. His only real constituency is the prison-building industry. I mean, to describe this guy as a visionary is to describe Stalin as a visionary, you know? Or the Bolsheviks as visionary.
And you know the Republicans' reaction to my ad has been hysterical. They hired an ad man who seemed to have to rely on alliteration - when I say alliteration I suspect Bush will think I'm referring to maybe the leader of one of the break-away republics in Eastern Europe or maybe think Im calling him illiterate - but you know, a reformer with results, a compassionate conservative. They started these ads with Engler saying he took on the trial lawyers and hes just a liar. He's been bought and paid for by the insurance industry.
I looked at [Bushs] deer-in-the-headlights, closely set eyes and I knew plenty of people who told me that when you actually sit down and listen to the guy he really does appear to be vacuous. I mean, I was not being facetious when I said Id like to see him win, I'd like to see him win the nomination, Id like to see him take on Al Gore.
So did you vote for Bush in the primary?
No, I voted for McCain. It's incredible to me that we have a club of old angry men and they are upset that other people are voting in their primary. The last time I heard that were the Communists who said you can't participate unless you were part of our party. Now you hear that Republicans complain about outsiders voting in their primary and participating in democracy, it's just outrageous. Its the nth degree of hypocrisy.
So you voted for McCain, but you dont really support him?
McCain is just as bad as Bush, but he's much brighter. The only thing I agree with him on is campaign finance reform and tobacco. I mean, he's his own man, and they won't tell him what to do. But they wont have to.
You get criticized for running publicity stunts. Do you think you might be sort of obsessed with being in the public eye?
I'm in the enviable position where I can take on the things I want to do and things I want to believe, and I've ended up doing a lot of things that other people just havent been willing to take on. Then they kind of belittle my presence, but you know nobody wanted to defend Jack Kevorkian, everyone thought that would just like putting a yoke around their neck. That it would be unpopular, that it would destroy their practice of law. And you know, nobody was jumping in to defend Nathaniel Abraham [a 13-year-old Feiger is defending against a life sentence for a murder Abraham committed at age 11.].
I just don't jump in opportunistically. I've turned down plenty of things I just would never do.
What wouldn't you do?
I don't feel comfortable taking on cases in which police shoot innocent citizens. I wouldn't represent the four officers in the Diallo case. If I were asked, I would represent his family against them. I wouldn't represent police officers who kill unarmed African-Americans or immigrants.
So how do you decide what cases you do take on?
Maybe I'll read about it in the paper and be intrigued. I don't know. It's intuitive. People don't understand that. I try to explain it and people cant get it. It comes from your gut. Not so much from your head; it's a little more from your heart. It tells people what's right and what's wrong.
In this country today, they've succeeded in making you believe that if you don't have your toys, your two cars, your cottage up north, your goddammned DVD computer and every other thing, that you are lost in the world, man.
So you go after cases?
Oh, they always come after me. I never seek anybody out. Every case I've ever taken has come to me. I mean, I'm in a certain enviable position where I have attained a certain notoriety so that they know about me.
Why do you think people come to you at this point? Free ink?
By me taking on a case it's going to ratchet up its importance because of my ability to proselytize the issues, to succinctly represent the issues that are important. The Jenny Jones case could have been lost as some kind of wrongful death suit about a gay man.
How did you celebrate Bush's loss in Michigan?
My wife and I went to a restaurant, and I had a little bowl of spaghetti. I had some people inside who told me the exit polls had McCain up by five or 10. I smiled. Then I went home, went to sleep, got up in the morning and flew to Chicago to meet with the family of a young Hispanic girl who was run over by a tow truck and whose family has been barraged by these blood-sucking lawyers trying to take her case. But I took it on.