Robert Bennett Throws Punches, Tells Tales

Could superlawyer Robert Bennett’s dirty little secret be that he’s a softy?

By: Kim Eisler

The press release promoting his new memoir, In the Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer, fosters the image of a former boxer who brings his pugilistic style to the courtroom.

But the book reveals a mellower Bennett, more like the one who went teary when he felt that aging client Clark Clifford, indicted for fraud in a bank scandal, was being rolled by an aggressive prosecutor. Bennett has not met a client he didn’t like, even finding kind words for Marge Schott, the gruff, anti-Semitic former owner of the Cincinnati Reds.

He seemed to fall head over heels for President Clinton, whom he praises effusively—and who wrote a blurb for the book.

Despite the book’s hype, Bennett hasn’t actually tried a full case since joining the New York firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in 1990. Almost all his considerable achievements have been in hearings before a judge, congressional panels, or other nonjudicial forums. As Clifford once said, Bennett is usually hired not because he is a bulldog but because he has a reputation for working out settlements. Bennett himself says that when you have to go to trial, you have already lost.

While publicists point to his string of high-profile victories—the case summaries make up most of the book—not all his cases ended up so well for his clients. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller ended up being the only person in the Scooter Libby case to serve time—for contempt of court. Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who also went to prison, is not mentioned in the book.

In the Paula Jones case, Bennett argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of Clinton that a sitting president should have immunity from testifying in a civil lawsuit until his term was over—and lost 9–0. As a result of that defeat, the President was forced to give a deposition in which he lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which led to his impeachment. To top it off, Clinton had to pay Jones $850,000 in damages, about 20 times what he might have settled the case for years earlier.

Bennett admits that his main goal in the Clinton litigation was to tie it up in the courts until after the 1996 elections. “My immediate goal in the Jones case was to delay it,” he writes.

Bennett, who boxed as an amateur, gets in a low blow or two. He credits White House attorneys Charles Ruff and Cheryl Mills for “brilliantly” representing Clinton in the Senate trial while labeling Williams & Connolly partner David Kendall, the President’s other major defender in the trial, as an “able” assistant.

In the end, Bennett proves himself a sentimental dog lover—one assignment was to get Schottzie, the Saint Bernard owned by Cincinnati Reds owner Schott, allowed on the field in the 1993 season; baseball ignored that plea—and a proud father: When he did try cases, one of Bennett’s trademarks was to work some mention of his three daughters, Catherine, Peggy, and Sarah, into every jury argument.

And they call him a tough guy?

This article can be found in the February 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.