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Monday, April 22, 2024

A Lost Monument to Civility

Lloyd Cutler was a collegial bipartisan in a capital city that has degenerated into Hate City, where the politics now run the gamut from mean to down-and-dirty.

Washington just lost one of its monuments.

No, not one of those marbled shrines to a dead president, but a modestly sized figure that, while never taken for granite, was the towering symbol of what Washington was before it became what it is.

Washington lost Lloyd Cutler. He died Sunday at 87. He was a quiet-spoken man who was not just the epitome of the insider’s insider in the capital city, but was a lifelong Democrat who was openly praised by Republicans and even had them as friends. He was courtly and collegial, a man who managed the now-lost art of holding partisan jobs and bipartisan friendships. It is a concept that must seem incongruous and even inconceivable to today’s politicians and pundits _ as mind-boggling as suggesting he could simultaneously surf blogs and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But there it is: Lloyd Cutler was a collegial bipartisan in a capital city that has degenerated into Hate City, where the politics now run the gamut from mean to down-and-dirty.

Cutler was the White House counsel to two presidents. But they turned out to be very different gigs, because of the way the city had changed. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton called on him for help when things had gotten tough. Under Carter, he dealt with geopolitics _ strategic arms limitation treaty negotiations, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis. Under Clinton, he dealt with gotchas _ allegations that a bad real estate deal called Whitewater was a scandal, followed by spinoffs replete with name-calling, smears and sex.

In a 1997 interview with the District of Columbia’s Bar Report, Cutler allowed that he liked his first stint more. “In those days it was a much better job than it is today because it was a policy-making job. I didn’t have to spend all my time defending the president and his team from personal attacks. … I thought it was the best job a lawyer could possibly have.”

To many, Cutler was the quintessential Washington lawyer, who represented America’s corporate elites at the firm he helped found, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. Stuart Taylor Jr., who gave up a career as a Washington lawyer in Cutler’s firm to become, of all things a Washington journalist, once wrote in praise of his old boss: “Lloyd was born an eminence grise” _ and he worked in a city that pronounced and defined it as “immense grease.” Whatever. Cutler had it and used it to the advantage of his clients in this city where political grease opens doors and lubricates deals in ways that made Ralph Nader rant more than rave.

But wait. Cutler also spent his life doing pro bono work in civil rights, organizing fellow lawyers to do the same. He won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People exercised its First Amendment rights in boycotting a Mississippi merchant. He won an $8.1 million award for the environmental activists of Greenpeace after the French navy blew up a boat that the activists were using to disrupt a nuclear test in the Pacific. He was one Washingtonian who seemed never out of commission; presidents of both parties were always naming him to one important commission or another.

But mainly, Cutler could see consequences that stretched beyond the limited horizons of political expediencies. Which is why he occasionally took on fellow Democrats and defended a controversial conservative. He famously supported President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. “For a Ronald Reagan appointment, I thought Bork was acceptable,” Cutler said in that Bar Report interview. “…I was also worried that if Democrats started sabotaging Reagan appointments by making ideological attacks, they would pay for it in the long run. The Republicans would retaliate.”

And lo, it came to pass. While Bork never became a Supreme Court justice, he did become a verb. Republicans vowed that they would “bork” Clinton judicial nominees _ and did. Now Democrats are doing the same to President Bush’s.

Vengeance has replaced governance in Hate City. Campaigns are fought and won not on the issues but on the ability to destroy an opponent, by any means possible. Then we praise the strategist who made it happen. Veracity need not be an obstacle to victory.

Hate City lost its monument to civility last Sunday. Sadly, it lost its way years earlier. Back when Lloyd Cutler first tried to get us all to understand.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)