I’m about to enter the inner sanctum of the man some people call Washington’s most influential behind-the-scenes operator. I’m not nervous about it—I’ve known Bob Barnett since I started writing about Washington lawyers in 1987. In those days, he was the guy who answered questions about his law firm, Williams & Connolly. Then just 41, he didn’t even seem like a powerful person at his firm, where lawyer legend Edward Bennett Williams reigned and Williams’s best-known protégés were Vincent Fuller, Brendan Sullivan, and Larry Lucchino.
Now 62, Barnett still may not be the most powerful player in the law firm, but he has become Washington’s indispensable man, the link among politicians, authors, government officials, journalists, ex-presidents, future presidents, and even foreign leaders. Former British prime minister Tony Blair had Barnett arrange lucrative consulting deals as well as sell Blair’s memoir for $8 million.
Maybe I should be nervous.
Barnett is known for being methodical. I know from experience that he starts almost every interview with a request that his office decor be off the record.
His secretary tells me that Bob is waiting, and I poke my head into his space. “The office is off the record,” he says. I’m wondering if that includes the view of the 220-year-old St. Patrick’s Catholic church from his 11th-floor corner office. As he ducks out to discuss something with his secretary, I try to figure out what he doesn’t want revealed. I don’t think he would mind my mentioning a bookshelf full of authors he has represented and a lot of pictures of his wife, CBS News correspondent Rita Braver, and their daughter, Meredith. I stay away from his desk for fear that I might discover whatever it is Barnett wants to keep secret.
On his return, Barnett directs me to a seat at a small conference table. He sits at one end and leans back with his hands behind his head. He doesn’t take off his blue suit jacket, which makes me wonder how fast I’ll have to talk to get through the 62 years of his busy life. When I interview lawyers, I’m usually aware of their hourly rates and always wonder if they’re thinking, “That’s another minute I could have billed to a client.” Barnett’s rate is generally $950 an hour.
Robert Bruce Barnett was born August 26, 1946, in Waukegan, Illinois, a town 40 miles north of Chicago, the first child of Betty and Bernard Barnett. Bernard worked for the Social Security Administration, often going to nursing homes and social clubs to explain to people their government benefits. He also had a popular call-in radio program on the subject.
As a preteen, Bob collected stamps and baseball cards and was active in debate and theater. He played the Stage Manager in his high school’s production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
I ask Barnett if Washington is anything like Grover’s Corners, the play’s setting.
“Washington?” Barnett replies. “Ha! Washington isn’t, but Waukegan was.”
His role in Our Town is one of the most daunting in high-school theater, with long speeches to memorize. Barnett has a gift for that. He also was the tri-state debate champion.
After high school, Barnett went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was a brilliant student, and he liked to take his laundry home on weekends.
He joined the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, where he had a frat brother, Steve Zacharias, who would go on to write screenplays for Revenge of the Nerds movies. Says Larry Weiner, a Barnett frat brother: “Bob’s evening activities did not include the usual events common to living in the frat house. Bob was an evening regular at the UW library, definitely not a party animal.”
The fraternity gave first room choice to its top student, “and nobody could ever wrest that from Bob,” says Bethesda attorney Michael Budow. “If you wanted to find Bob, you knew to look in the library. At the same time, he played intramural sports and had a great sense of humor. We couldn’t understand why he was so serious about school, but he was no robot and everyone liked him.”
In 1967, when he was a senior and without a girlfriend, a housemate suggested that Barnett might like the company of a brainy sophomore from Silver Spring, Maryland, who was into Irish literature, Shakespeare, and the painter Vincent van Gogh but who, like Bob, was majoring in political science.
Barnett was introduced to Rita Braver, an alumna of Bethesda–Chevy Chase High School. For their first meeting, he invited her to a law-school study hall for a “study date.” Barnett walked her back to the dorm that night and asked if she would marry him. She politely declined. “He didn’t bring it up again for five years,” she says.
“I was dead serious—and crushed when she said no,” Barnett says. But they continued to date. He had decided to go to law school and was accepted by several top Ivy League schools. He picked the University of Chicago so he wouldn’t be too far away from Braver. She was flattered but assumed he also did it so he’d be close to his mother’s washing machine.
His fraternity brothers weren’t surprised that Barnett wanted to stay close to Braver: Their studious buddy had hit the dating jackpot. Braver was one of the most attractive girls on campus, says a frat brother: “Boy, did they click. She was just as focused as he was—two people who knew what they wanted.”
After Barnett finished law school in 1971, he landed a clerk’s position with Louisiana federal judge John Minor Wisdom, a legendary Southern judge during the civil-rights era. It was one of the most coveted clerkships in the country. Braver, who had graduated from Wisconsin the year before and had been traveling in Europe, agreed to move to New Orleans with him.