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A.B. Culvahouse: The Man Who Vetted Sarah Palin
Comments () | Published April 21, 2011
Like Palin, Culvahouse loves the outdoors. He hunts birds, and friends say he’s a great shot. When he can, he spends weekends away from his Alexandria home at his second place in the Northern Neck of Virginia, where he likes to catch rockfish.

Named after his father, Arthur Boggess, Culvahouse was born on the Fourth of July 1948 in Ten Mile, Tennessee, halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga. His Southern roots are detectable when he says words like July, which he pronounces “Joo-ly.”

He grew up on a working farm, where his daily responsibility was to feed the hogs and cattle. With about 3,000 residents, Ten Mile—like Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska—was the kind of place where all the neighbors knew your business.

The similarities end there. While Palin tweets and Facebook-updates her way into the daily news cycle, starred in a reality-TV series, and offers on-air insight as a Fox News commentator, Culvahouse prefers to stay in the background.

He has been a lifelong Republican but decided early on that a career as an elected politician wasn’t for him. He was involved with Gerald Ford’s primary campaign in 1976, and in 1978 he helped his mentor and first boss out of law school, then–Tennessee senator Howard Baker, win a third term. Two years later, Culvahouse worked on Baker’s unsuccessful presidential bid. Those experiences were enough to convince him he wanted no part in running for office himself.

Instead, he has cultivated a career as a behind-the-scenes Washington player—just the kind of Beltway insider Palin and her Tea Partyers rail against.

It takes the right connections to get from Ten Mile to a corner office in one of DC’s top law firms, and Culvahouse displayed an early talent for developing them.

His first foray into Washington was as Howard Baker’s legislative assistant and counsel, a job he landed the year he graduated from New York University School of Law in 1973. Another Tennessee Republican and former Baker aide, current senator Lamar Alexander, found Culvahouse the job.

Culvahouse had met Alexander when he was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee and Alexander—then in local politics—appeared at a school event. The two struck up a conversation, and Alexander encouraged Culvahouse to consider NYU for law school because of the university’s Root-Tilden scholarship, which was awarded to applicants around the country to attract out-of-state students.

Culvahouse—who had never been to New York—followed the advice and won the scholarship, which covered tuition and room and board. “For a farmer’s son whose father made it very clear that law school was on me, it was very attractive,” he says.

He and Alexander formed a close friendship, and ultimately Alexander got him the interview with Baker.

Baker already had offered Culvahouse the Capitol Hill job when the Senate Watergate Committee was formed, and Baker became its ranking member. Given the intensity of the investigation into the Watergate burglary, Culvahouse worried that the senator would decide he needed someone with more experience.

But Baker’s offer stood. By the Monday after law-school finals, Culvahouse’s NYU buddies turned on the TV and saw him sitting behind the senator at the Watergate hearings.

“I had great confidence in him,” says Baker, who remains a close friend and counselor to Culvahouse. “I still do.”

On a Friday evening months later, Baker was invited to the White House to discuss the possible compromise between the Senate committee and President Richard Nixon about accessing the now infamous Watergate tapes. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox had subpoenaed Nixon for the tapes, which were recordings of conversations between the President and his aides made around the time of the Watergate break-in, and Nixon had declined to turn them over. Culvahouse was the most senior aide left in Baker’s office that night, so Baker asked him to tag along.

“It was my first time in the Oval Office,” says Culvahouse.

It also was an early lesson on the value of discretion in Washington.

There was Culvahouse, less than a year out of law school, witnessing a key moment in the Watergate saga. The compromise being discussed—in which Nixon offered to let then-senator John Stennis review and summarize the tapes instead of turning them over to investigators—was refused by Cox and eventually led to his firing and the so-called “Saturday-night massacre” that hastened Nixon’s fall.

The ability to keep secrets, to resist the urge to talk about such a White House experience, is a prized quality in this town.

A secret-keeper is what the McCain campaign wanted when the time came to find a running mate after the senator locked up the GOP nomination in the Texas primary in March 2008.

For McCain and his campaign manager, Rick Davis, Culvahouse was the obvious choice to lead the vetting operation.

“I have never heard of any breach of confidentiality that was agreed to by A.B.,” says McCain, who met Culvahouse while they were both serving on the Board of Visitors of the US Naval Academy more than 20 years ago.

Culvahouse was an early supporter of McCain. He helped raise money and personally gave $5,000 to McCain’s political-action committee in December 2007, just before the New Hampshire primary.

“He assisted the senator in the hard days when very few people thought he had a chance and the senator was carrying his own luggage,” says Trevor Potter, who was general counsel of the 2008 McCain campaign.

Even when Fred Thompson—a friend of Culvahouse’s since they worked together on the Senate Watergate Committee—got in the race, Culvahouse didn’t waver.

“I thought that Senator McCain’s positions and thinking about the Iraq War and Afghanistan were on the money, so I signed up,” says Culvahouse.

During the primaries, Rick Davis asked Culvahouse if he would get involved beyond a fundraising role. Culvahouse said that if McCain won the nomination, maybe he could assist with vetting vice-presidential contenders.

McCain was superstitious about clinching the nomination, so he wasn’t prepared to talk about running mates until he was absolutely sure he’d need one. Culvahouse didn’t hear anything more about it from the campaign and assumed he was off the hook.

Then, during a press conference after the Texas primary, McCain was asked who would lead his vetting process. In the impulsive manner that came to define McCain’s presidential bid, his answer was Culvahouse. That was news to the Washington lawyer.

“Let me be clear—I never suggested that I do it,” Culvahouse recalls. “I suggested that I help. But there we were.”

Next: Meeting with McCain.

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Posted at 08:00 AM/ET, 04/21/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles