Man Who Sleeps With a Beeper

Lanny Davis: chief presidential spinmeister

Lanny Davis's official title is special counsel to the president." But a more accurate honorific might be "Feeder of the Beast."

"The Beast" is White House slang for the Washington press corps. And as the administration's chief defender on Whitewater, campaign fund-raising, and other matters of alleged irregularity, Mr. Davis throws quotes at Beast representatives for impossibly long hours, every day.

At peak periods, phone calls flood into his Old Executive Office Building quarters at the rate of one each two minutes. Many are minute queries about a vast canvas of allegations, which, in number of characters and plot complexity, rivals "War and Peace."

"I have 50 to 75 hard-working, bright, and very competitive people ... working to beat the others on these stories," he says, staring at his ringing phone. "And I'm the vehicle they have to go through."

It's a very tough job, as both the president's defenders and his detractors would probably agree. A number of lawyers turned it down after the man who used to hold it, Mark Fabiani, fled the tension and the hours.

But it's a job that Lanny Davis (named after an Upton Sinclair protagonist) pursued. As a radio commentator and long-time litigator with the Washington firm of Patton Boggs, his experience uniquely fit the demands of the post, Mr. Davis claims.

"Sounds mushy, but I think the president can do great things for the party and the country with the story behind us," he says.

Whether the administration will ever be rid of the story - or whether, as critics might say, the term "story" downplays its substance - remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: the tale of Whitewater, et al., takes a lot of energy to keep up with.

Its cast stretches from old Little Rock, Ark., Clintonians such as former Associate Attorney Gen. Webster Hubbell (convicted of illegal billing practices while an attorney at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock) to John Huang, the former Commerce Department official who met frequently at the White House and whose links to the big bucks of the Indonesian Riady family will be closely scrutinized during Capitol Hill hearings.

Story events touch on everything from a failed Arkansas land deal to Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising calls.

At least Watergate had a beginning, a middle, and an end. "Our problem is every story leads to another, and another, and another ... it never ends," Davis says.

Davis directs his defense effort from Room 125 of the Old Executive Office Building, just a subpoena's throw from the Oval Office itself. It's a scene of mismatched furniture, worn blue carpeting, ornate moldings - and a pile of note pads.

On a shelf behind his desk, Davis keeps worn stenographer's notebooks listing all the calls he's ever received from reporters, in order, and what specific queries were asked. "This is [notebook] No. 14. I started it May 5th," says Davis. Davis's first day on the job came early last December. With only a few blank pages remaining in the current pad, he will soon start notebook No. 15.

While the notebooks contain questions, they do not contain answers. Davis and his staff are reluctant to commit answers to paper, since any document is subject to subpoena. If an answer were found to be inaccurate, it could be determined as obstructing justice, according to Davis, and be pursued by outside investigators.

"Those of us who work here are afraid of getting caught in the cross hairs of the special prosecutor," says an office staff member.

On a normal day, without congressional hearings under way, Davis's typical 13-hour marathon at the office continues after leaving the White House complex. "This is the around-the-clock messenger of the Beast," he says, waving a pager plucked from his belt.

To keep peace at home, Davis forbids reporter calls to his Potomac, Md., residence. But to help reporters on deadline in the middle of the night, he sleeps with his pager under his pillow, he says. It's set to vibrate, not beep, out of consideration for his wife.

"On occasion I have this pager go off and I think I'm having a bad dream, and then I wake up ... and I am," he says with a grin.

Davis made the connection that would lead to his White House job when he was a classmate of Hillary Rodham Clinton at Yale Law School in the late 1960s. He later joined then Sen. Edmund Muskie's presidential bid as his national youth coordinator.

Not yet hung on his office wall is a picture of a young Davis with a young Robert Kennedy, taken in 1968 during a campaign stop in Connecticut. Kennedy was in town in support of New Haven Mayor Richard Lee, then Davis's boss.

In the 30 years since the photo was taken, Davis entrenched himself in the local and national Democratic Party. His trajectory through the ranks created close allies. But in two failed runs for a congressional seat in the '70s, Davis drew party criticism as opportunistic and polarizing.

That brashness has been overcome, he claims, as he leads a mini-tour of his office, past an intern answering phones. He believes he has "learned humility." Davis says he gets much help from White House spokesman Mike McCurry. "McCurry's philosophy from day one is to get all the facts out we can."

Critics claim that, in fact, the White House often delays its response to specific allegations as long as possible. One technique Davis uses often has become known as the "document dump": the release of page upon page of much-sought paper. This preempts Republicans from delivering bad news first. It also slows news organizations.

The measure of success, Davis claims, is if a year from now "The Story" is behind the administration, and reporters are focused on other matters. "We should get it out this year," he says.

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