Robert Barnett is a giant in publishing, an expert at presidential debate prep, and just an all-around nice guy
Published in 2007 Washington DC Super Lawyers magazine
on March 19, 2007
Updated on February 16, 2010
When Robert Barnett’s daughter Meredith was little, the kids in her class were asked what their fathers do for a living. “My daddy helps people,” she said.
That’s still Barnett’s favorite description—and certainly the most succinct—of his widely varied and much-envied practice as a senior partner at Williams & Connolly in Washington. Quietly representing big corporations is the heart of his practice, but he’s become famous as the dealmaker for top officials returning to private life. He’s a negotiator who handles contracts for television network reporters and producers, and a literary representative—don’t call him an agent—who has brokered some of the biggest book deals in publishing history.
Besides his status as a master dealmaker, he’s renowned for his political connections across the left-right spectrum, for coaching presidential and vice presidential candidates for televised debates, and for being half of one of Washington’s classic power couples. He’s also one of the nicest guys around.
“What’s good for lunch here?” Barnett asks as he takes a seat in the lounge of the hotel on Central Park South where he stays when he’s in New York. The menu is limited, but that doesn’t prevent him from doing what he does best: negotiate. He’s legendary for going off the menu. But today, he settles for something on the menu, a turkey club sandwich. With a stipulation: “No bacon. No mayo.”
Barnett is close to 6 feet tall, slender, slightly stooped, with retreating and graying hair, and a wide-open expression behind his big 1980s-style glasses. He is the sort of person you would stop on the street and ask for directions. His voice is soft, a little scratchy, a little high, with a reassuring Midwestern non-accent. He often ends his sentences with a slight exclamation, as if he is delighted just to be talking with you. Unlike some lawyers, he doesn’t try to impress a new acquaintance with how smart he is, or how tough or how determined he is or how hard he works. If you don’t know who he is, he doesn’t need to impress you. If you do, you’re already impressed.
The New York Times calls him “The Kingpin of Washington Book Deals.” His array of friends—and clients—crosses partisan boundaries and stretches from the Clintons to James Carville and Mary Matalin to the Cheneys. Pretty heady company for a middle-class kid from Waukegan, Ill.
Barnett loves to tell of the joys of growing up in Waukegan in the 1950s and ’60s. He ticks off the names of famous people from his hometown: Jack Benny, Nat King Cole, Ray Bradbury. Barnett’s father was head of the local Social Security office. His mother was a homemaker. He and his sister, who still lives in the Chicago area, remain close.
In their unassuming way, Barnett’s family showed him that one person can make a difference. When Barnett was a teenage folk music fan, his father helped him bring the Chad Mitchell Trio to Waukegan. They booked the group, reserved a hall, and the young Barnett sold enough tickets to pay for it all. In high school, Barnett was in student government, on the debating team and valedictorian. He ran cross-country and track but jogs only occasionally these days, on a treadmill, never outside. “I’m an indoorsman,” he says with no hint of embarrassment. “I probably haven’t been outside for more than 20 minutes at a time since high school.” Not even for golf? Barnett grins, relishing a new audience for what obviously are one-liners well-honed on the Georgetown cocktail and dinner-party circuit. “No golf,” Barnett declares. “But I’m a scratch shopper.” After a beat or two, with timing worthy of Benny, he adds, “My main form of exercise is mood swings.”
Barnett thought he would become a high school teacher, and majored in English and history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He wasn’t planning on a career in law even when he enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School. He thought law would be a good grounding for something else—business, politics or teaching history.
But he loved the law, and when he graduated No. 2 in his class, he was offered a clerkship with the legendary Judge John Minor Wisdom on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. He and his girlfriend, Rita Braver, moved to New Orleans. She took a job as an editorial assistant—a “copyboy” as they called it back then—at one of the local television stations. By the end of their year in New Orleans, Barnett and Braver had married and she was producing the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock news and was on her way to a distinguished career as a network correspondent for CBS.
They moved to Washington after Barnett was offered a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Byron White. Barnett was a regular in the notoriously rough pickup basketball games that White, an all-American football player, organized in the Supreme Court gym. Barnett suffered a broken hand, a broken foot and many minor injuries in that game, but he won’t say how many White inflicted. “That shall never be spoken about,” he says.
After the Supreme Court, Barnett “wanted to do something political.” A lifelong Democrat, he took a job as an aide to Sen. Walter Mondale. Two years later, he had offers from several major Washington firms and chose Williams & Connolly for the chance to work for Joseph Califano and Edward Bennett Williams. Barnett calls Williams “the best lawyer of our time and any time. He had the mind of a genius and oral advocacy skills that have never been equaled. He could convince anyone of anything one-on-one.”
When Jimmy Carter chose Mondale as his running mate in 1976, Barnett took a leave of absence to work on the campaign. He discovered a talent for what has since become his specialty in politics: preparing candidates for debates. He has worked on seven Democratic presidential and vice presidential campaigns.
“I think the presidential debates are the purest intersection of politics, policy and media, all of which I enjoy,” he says as his sandwich arrives.
Barnett usually takes the role of the Republican in practice debates. He was George H. W. Bush in 1984, 1988 and 1992. He has debated against Bill Clinton in more than 20 practice sessions. He portrayed Dick Cheney in 2000 and 2004. “The goal is to have your candidate hearing nothing at the debate that they haven’t heard from you,” he says.
Barnett is matter-of-fact when asked if he gets bitter when one of his candidates loses. “Nah, that’s the nature of the system,” he says. “Somebody wins and somebody loses.” And in Barnett’s world, everybody ends up friends—and clients. He was the Clintons’ personal lawyer for a time and handled their big book deals. Dole is a client, and so are Lynne and Mary Cheney. Barnett socializes often with all of them, and says he and Cheney have “had a few laughs” over his portrayal of the vice president.
After the 1984 campaign, Mondale’s running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, was flooded with offers to write a book about being the first female vice presidential candidate. Barnett helped her choose an agent and she ended up being the first public figure to get a seven-figure advance.
“I saw what the agent did and said, I can do that as a lawyer, and why should the author pay 15 percent?” Barnett says.
David Stockman, President Reagan’s budget director, was next. On the day we had lunch, eight of Barnett’s clients had books on The New York Times bestseller lists. But don’t call him an agent. “Lawyer,” he says, holding up his hand like a stop sign. “Not an agent. Lawyer.” The difference is that he charges his usual $900 an hour, while agents charge a 15 percent commission. “I do what an agent does but I don’t charge the way they charge, and I obviously do all the legal work. Plus I enforce the contract and plan the rollout.”
This means big savings for big-name clients who can attract big advances. Barnett has negotiated three of the four biggest reported advances in nonfiction publishing history: Bill Clinton’s reported $12 million, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s reported $9 million and Hillary Clinton’s $8 million. He does book deals not only for political figures (William Bennett, Barack Obama) but columnists (the late Art Buchwald, George Will), novelists (James Patterson) and journalists (Tim Russert, Cokie Roberts, Bob Woodward).
The one that got away? “Pope,” Barnett says between bites of the turkey club. John Paul II got a reported $8.5 million.
In all, Barnett has about 250 publishing clients. He receives hundreds of unsolicited synopses for novels and proposals for nonfiction books every year, and reads them all. “They’ve obviously paid me a compliment,” he says of would-be authors. “But I probably turn down 100 for every one I do.” He will, however, send you perhaps the most positive, thoughtful and polite rejection letter you will ever receive.
The publishing work accounts for about 10 percent of the 2,400 hours that Barnett bills a year. Negotiating TV contracts takes up about 15 percent of his time. He counts as clients Sam Donaldson, Judy Woodruff, Christiane Amanpour, Andrea Mitchell, Gwen Ifill and about 350 others.
Ten percent of Barnett’s practice is devoted to “crisis management that you never hear about if I do my job, anything from criminal to press inquiries to congressional investigations.”
And 10 percent of his practice is devoted to helping departing government officials transition into the private sector—law firms, lobbying, corporations, consulting, teaching. He has found new opportunities for Andrew Card, Norman Mineta, Dan Quayle, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Donna Shalala and many others. Just as he is not an agent, Barnett takes pains to explain that he is not a headhunter; rather, he will sort through options, make recommendations and negotiate contracts.
The remaining 55 percent of his practice is general corporate work, usually supervising litigation. Barnett doesn’t go to court himself anymore, but he has a long list of blue-chip clients, including McDonald’s, Toyota, General Electric, Comcast, Sunbeam and Revlon.
One of his longtime clients is JM Family Enterprises, the Florida-based automotive distribution and sales company that is Forbes’ 18th-largest privately held company in the United States. CEO Colin Brown remembers interviewing Barnett years ago and asking the lawyer to mention eight or nine points that would be key to serving as outside counsel. “He hit me with all of [my key points] and then with two more I hadn’t thought of,” Brown says. Their initial meeting, scheduled for 90 minutes, lasted five hours.
Brown says Barnett is at his best in a crisis. “He’s unflappable. A very calming influence. He’s also just a genuinely nice guy who really loves what he’s doing.” He says Barnett’s idea of a hike is walking from store to store on Rodeo Drive, or prowling through antique stores, looking to add to his collections of old pens, cufflinks and watches.
Like so many of Barnett’s clients, Brown is now a friend. One night the two men took a break from work to stroll down the midway at the Arizona state fair. Barnett started playing the games and winning: the penny on the plate, the ring around the bottle, all of them. “Turns out he worked in a carnival when he was a kid,” Brown says. “Something you’d never associate with him.”
Once Brown’s phone rang and it was Barnett, whispering into his cell phone from a balcony off the Clintons’ private residence at the White House. “Here I am,” Barnett marveled. “Can you believe this is happening to a boy from Waukegan, Illinois?”
At lunch in New York, Barnett shoots out his arm to show off one of his favorite old watches, a stylish art deco number with a rectangular ebony face. He’s in town to advise a corporate client on litigation—he won’t say which client, or what litigation—and negotiate a new contract for a network TV client. He’ll also meet with a publisher and go to Hillary Clinton’s 59th birthday party at Tavern on the Green.
Bob Woodward, who has hired Barnett to make the deals for 10 of his bestsellers, won’t say how much Barnett has saved him in agent commissions, but says, “He’s the biggest and perhaps the only bargain in Washington.”
Woodward calls Barnett a friend, adviser, counselor, unofficial brother and “the guy who takes away the punch bowl” if you’re about to have too much to drink. Woodward also vouches for Barnett’s discomfort outdoors. They went sailing and Barnett showed up looking more like he was ready for a day at the office than a day at sea. “Wrong shoes and all,” Woodward recalls fondly. “Like Nixon on the beach.” While other guests stayed on deck, enjoying the sun and wind and spray, Barnett disappeared below.
In Barnett’s office, the shelves are filled with his clients’ books, photos from each of the debates, art and pottery collected on world travels, and many pictures of Rita Braver and their daughter, Meredith, formerly an editor at Lucky magazine, now a second-year MBA student at Harvard.
It doesn’t take much prodding for Braver, who was CBS’s law correspondent from 1983 to 1993 and is now senior correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning, to talk about her husband, going back to their days at the University of Wisconsin. “Neither one of us knew what we were going to do,” she says. “We both knew we wanted to do something interesting. We never thought it would be as interesting as it has been.”
She says much of her husband’s success as a lawyer comes from his commitment to treating everybody the same way he would treat an old friend from Waukegan. “Part of it is that he’s a helluva nice guy,” she says. “He gives the same amount of thought to every client, whether a powerful person or not. He’s approachable when you’d expect him to be aloof, more dignified.” She says everybody knows he’s a Democrat, but Republicans want her husband to represent them because he’s the best—the same way they’d want the best doctor or auto mechanic.
“He’s not going to make crazy claims or demands,” she says. “He wants his clients to have great expectations, but not silly ones.” Many times, she says, clients have been satisfied and wanted to take the offer on the table, but Barnett has said, no, let’s keep going—and the results have been a better deal. “I want you to write that,” she adds.
Barnett himself is not given to introspection about his success, and demurs when asked about negotiating tips. Pressed, he’s too polite to say no, and offers three tips:
“No. 1, you’ve got to be prepared and know everything there is to know about what your client wants.
“Second, you’ve got to analyze the negotiations not only from your point of view, but from your adversary’s point of view.
“And you’ve got to keep in mind that the client makes the decisions, not you.”
His goal is to please his client, of course, but to also keep the other side happy. “Ultimately, the best deal is the one where nobody gets everything but everybody gets something.”
Looking ahead, he wants nothing but more of the same. More books, more transitions, more debates, more corporate work, more friends, more parties. The only other jobs he might consider would be publisher of the The Washington Post, president of a network news division or English teacher at Waukegan High School. Given that none are on the menu, Barnett figures he’ll work at Williams & Connolly “until they carry me out.”
“My planned retirement,” he says, “is death.” Until then, Barnett will continue to order off the menu.
—Timothy Harper is a journalist, lawyer, author and editorial/publishing consultant based at www.timharper.com. He is a writing coach at the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.