For a Power Lawyer, a New High-Wire Act
Posted by tothewire on January 18, 2009
WASHINGTON — During 40 years in politics, Gregory B. Craig has learned the art of the balancing act.
As a Harvard student in 1968, he was enthralled by Allard K. Lowenstein, the antiwar candidate who preached change from within. As a young foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, he showed sympathy to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, then tromped through hot, muddy jungles to document human rights horrors they committed.
As a hotshot Washington lawyer and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton from Yale Law School, he defended Mr. Clinton against impeachment. But in the 2008 campaign, he dumped the Clintons for Barack Obama, who reminded him, friends say, of a time when politics was about ideas, not partisanship.
Now Mr. Craig’s balancing skills are being tested as never before. As the incoming White House counsel — Mr. Obama’s in-house lawyer — he is in the thick of the most contentious debates facing the new administration, from how to shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to whether C.I.A. interrogators suspected of torture should be prosecuted.
It is a task that pits Candidate Obama’s promises to restore America’s moral standing against the stark reality of President Obama’s obligation to keep the nation safe. There is pressure from all sides: many liberals are urging the new administration to conduct a full accounting of the Bush administration’s policies and conduct on the interrogation and detention of terrorism suspects, among other issues. Yet Mr. Obama himself is signaling that he does not favor a full-scale look back.
Under Mr. Craig’s guidance, the Obama team has already signaled at least one step: an executive order to shut down Guantánamo, to be issued on the new president’s first full day at work.
But human rights advocates are pressing for more. Along with Eric H. Holder Jr., the nominee for attorney general, Mr. Craig met recently with a group of retired military leaders who presented a menu of options for them to consider. They include repealing a Bush executive order that authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct interrogations using harsh tactics that the military does not permit.
“We wrapped up by saying, ‘If you embark on a path in which you are criticized for being soft on terrorism, we’re here to tell you that we’ve got your back,’ ” said Vice Adm. Lee F. Gunn, a retired former Navy inspector general who attended the session. “I think they appreciated that.”
At 63, Mr. Craig fits a classic Washington prototype, the power lawyer. In a city consumed by power, power lawyers come in various stripes. The scandal lawyer extricates politicians from sticky situations. The celebrity lawyer represents big names. The talk-show lawyer sounds smooth on Sunday mornings. The lobbyist deal-maker lawyer uses political connections to open doors. The policy wonk lawyer advises behind the scenes.
Mr. Craig is a little bit of all of these. He has mastered the Washington revolving door, going from the private sector to government (in addition to his work for Mr. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, he was a top aide to Madeleine K. Albright when she was Mr. Clinton’s secretary of state) and back again.
His client roster has been studded with familiar names, like John W. Hinckley Jr., Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin; the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn; and Mr. Kennedy, when the senator testified in his nephew’s rape trial. And he is facile with the news media; Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, says Mr. Craig is likely to play “some sort of public role” in the Obama White House, a departure from the Bush White House, where lawyers were kept under wraps.
Democrats, bruised by their bitter battles with President Bush’s counsel over testimony and documents, expect Mr. Craig to be more cooperative with Congress, although there are no guarantees. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longtime friend of Mr. Craig and his parents from their home state, Vermont, is hopeful.
“I told Barack Obama when he picked him: ‘This is great. You’re going to have a White House counsel I can talk to without having to subpoena,’ ” Mr. Leahy said.
Not everyone is so thrilled. Tom Fitton, director of the conservative group Judicial Watch, faults Mr. Craig as representing a “rogues’ gallery” of foreign clients whose interests are at odds with those of the United States, among them a Panamanian soldier wanted in this country on murder charges. Cuban-Americans labeled him “Castro’s lawyer” for representing the father of Elián Gonzalez, the young boy who was spirited away from his Florida relatives by federal marshals and sent back to Cuba in an international custody dispute.
Yet in the time-honored way of Washington, Mr. Craig, who will quit his partnership in the upscale law firm Williams & Connolly for the $172,200-a-year White House job, has found a way to make friends with the other side. He counts Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s political guru, as a friend; Mr. Rove said Mr. Craig would “serve the new president and the country with great integrity.”
From his earliest days in politics, Mr. Craig was more of a pragmatist than a bomb-thrower. In the Vietnam era, he shunned the radicalism of groups like the Weather Underground, said Lanny Davis, another Lowenstein protégé and Yale Law graduate who wound up in the Clinton inner circle.
“That was our shtick,” Mr. Davis said. “The biggest enemy was on the left — the people who were engaging in violence and making it impossible to win back the center of the country.”
Decades later, facing the most devastating crisis of his political career, Mr. Clinton summoned Mr. Craig to coordinate the legal, political and Congressional response to the accusations that the president had lied under oath about his affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Mr. Craig was said to be appalled by his old friend’s conduct but took the case nonetheless.
The poisonous politics of that experience left Mr. Craig deeply disillusioned, friends said, and ultimately pushed him into the Obama camp.
But Clinton loyalists accuse Mr. Craig of some poisonous politics of his own during the Democratic primary season last year.
Turning his powers of persuasion against Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Craig issued a blistering foreign policy critique of the former first lady that began, “When your entire campaign is based upon a claim of experience, it is important that you have evidence to support that claim.”
Clinton stalwarts were stunned. “Those of us supporting Hillary were taken aback by the sharpness of his tone, let me put it that way,” said Harold Ickes, who counts Mr. Craig and the Clintons as friends. “Quite frankly, I was.”
Whether Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Craig have patched things up, now that she is set to become secretary of state, is unclear. Mr. Ickes said the two had “exchanged pleasantries” but nothing more.
There is no such awkwardness with Mr. Obama. Over the course of the long and grueling campaign, Mr. Craig worked his way deep into the Obama inner circle, playing the role of legal expert, foreign policy adviser and stand-in for the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, during mock presidential debates.
Looking ahead, colleagues expect Mr. Craig to focus intensely on the review of Bush military interrogation policies, especially on the difficult issue of how to proceed with the Guantánamo shutdown.
Mr. Davis, Mr. Craig’s old friend from his Lowenstein days, expects the new White House counsel to approach the task as a “pragmatic idealist.”
The balancing act begins Tuesday.
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG