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NewsHour Remembers White House Counsel Cutler and Lawyer John Pickering

Stuart Taylor, columnist for the Legal Times and senior writer for National Journal magazine, joins Jim Lehrer to remember former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler and lawyer John Pickering.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Finally tonight, remembering Lloyd Cutler, counselor to presidents. The Washington lawyer died yesterday at 87. I said he was 84 in the News Summary earlier. That was wrong.

    We get some insight into Lloyd Cutler's life and career from Stuart Taylor, columnist for the Legal Times and senior writer for National Journal Magazine. Back in 1977, Stuart was fresh out of law school and a new associate at Lloyd Cutler's law firm here in Washington. He has since written often and extensively about Mr. Cutler. Welcome.

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    Nice to be here, Jim.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What's the most important thing all of us should know about Lloyd Cutler?

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    He was a great lawyer in a time when lawyers could be called great, not just slick or good and when great lawyers could also be great statesmen, when being a great Washington lawyer, a super lawyer, as he and others were called, meant serving the country not just serving a bunch of corporate clients. He served a bunch of corporate clients. The list goes on and on and he served them well.

    But he also was in and out of government as you mentioned. He had jobs with six presidents. He worked across party lines. He was a democrat and not a conservative democrat, I'd say, a little bit liberal for a democrat. But he worked with Republicans all the time on all kinds of things and had their respect. In today's Washington, I'm not sure anyone could do that.

    But as you mentioned earlier, six presidents, his greatest headliners were president — he was counsel, White House counsel to each of our last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But he also served in commissions and various other capacities for the first President Bush, for President Reagan, for the second, the current President Bush. He was, when he died he was at least ex-officio a member of the commission investigating weapons of mass destruction.

    And, lastly, I think he believed that the law should be used as a tool for the public good. And for that reason he and his law firm did a great deal of uncompensated public interest work. They were active in the civil rights movement representing the NAACP in the Supreme Court and a long list of other engagements, mostly on the liberal side of issues, but not always.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    How would you describe his manner, the way he went about his business, the way he went about his life just as a person?

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    It was often said of him that he was never the first person in the room to talk and he was never the loudest voice, but he was the one everybody listened to. He would talk slowly, ponderously but with gravitas as the word goes. You sort of had the feeling you were listening to somebody who had really thought it through who was picking his words very carefully, who had found the formula that everybody in the room could agree on or should understand and he made a heavy impression that way.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Did you have the impression, Stuart, that his wisdom, his power, came from instinct or was it as the result of hard work and study and preparation or a combination thereof or what?

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    I think it was both; he whipped through Yale College and graduated at age 18. Most people start at age 18. Then at Yale he was president of the Law Review, so he clearly had the horsepower. But lots of people have the horsepower who didn't become Lloyd Cutler.

    I think he had an instinct for solving things, for finding formulas that people coming from different directions could agree on and for putting them across to people in a persuasive way. And also I think he earned credibility with republicans for example when he supported Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court.

    That was crossing party lines. A lot of democrats were mad at his but Bork was a friend of his. He respected Bork and thought he was good enough for the Supreme Court. Darn it, he was going to support him.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Full disclosure. I was a personal friend of Mr. Cutler. And I remember asking him – when he took the job, he was 77 years old, when he took the job to go back to the White House and be Bill Clinton's White House counsel.

    And I said to him, "Lloyd, why are you doing this?" And he said, "Well I thought about it. I'm 77 years old." Here's a picture of him, in fact, with President Clinton. He said, "I thought about it. I'm 77 years old. What am I saving myself for?" Which is a terrific Lloyd Cutler kind of answer.

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    He had a lot of miles in him. President Clinton, when he was looking for someone to help him out at that time who was, you know, he was having trouble with Whitewater and his previous White House counsel had kind of gotten run out of town. He was heard to say we need a Lloyd Cutler type. Everybody knew what that meant.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Then he convinced Lloyd Cutler to himself to come. Now there's an interesting — in March, one of Lloyd Cutler's partners and best friends, John Pickering died. They were two of a kind, were they not?

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    They were. They were friends for life. They were the post World War II generation. John Pickering argued one of the great cases in the history of the Supreme Court, the steel case under Harry Truman and led the law firm. Lloyd was more in the public sector, John more in the private sector. But they both had that largeness of ambition and purpose and character that commanded respect and people did not look at these guys by and large and say, "Oh, they're just hard guns doing it for a client."

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I'm interested in what you said finally, I want to come back to a story that you said at the beginning that would be hard for somebody to become a Lloyd Cutler or now a John Pickering, a young lawyer coming along. Why? What's happened?

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    It's hard to put your finger on it. We've changed in a lot of ways. But the most obvious way is the polarization, the lack of bipartisanship, the bitterness across party lines that we see in Congress every day.

    Lloyd would like to think and to say that everybody in the room, the democrats, the republicans, the liberals and the conservatives, we're all reasonable people here. We ought to be able to work something out. That's not an easy sell these days. And also I think there was more respect for institutions and there was more respect for the legal profession and for the people at the top of the legal profession.

    I remember when he was representing President Clinton, he testified in Congress. He said, "I'm not here as a hired gun" — that wasn't the word but the spirit– "for President Clinton here. I've done a factual investigation. I'm here to tell you what my conclusions are as a man of integrity." He expected people to believe that. Some of them did.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Some of them did. You're saying he may have been among the last who could do that and be believed, say that and be believed.

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    I think that's right, yeah.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Okay. Stuart, thank you.

  • STUART TAYLOR:

    Thank you.

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