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Backstreet Boies

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Never mind the rumpled suits. Gore's point man can really rumble

David Boies, the lawyer who won Al Gore's fight for a recount, is an awfully rumpled sort for the permanently pressed Vice President. He has a steel-trap mind but the quirks of a little kid. When I catch up with him on Friday morning--after he has cut short his Thanksgiving break, flying back to Tallahassee, Fla., from his home in New York's Westchester County ("I had two turkey lunches, but no dinner")--he runs upstairs to his room at the tiny Governor's Inn to change out of his blue suit; it's the only one he has in Tallahassee, and it has started to rain. Fond of Lands' End tailoring, knit ties and cheap watches, Boies quickly returns in a gray tweed wool jacket, which, for the rest of the day, he pulls over his head to stay dry, as if an umbrella might slow him down. He feels the same way about briefcases and legal pads. As best I can tell, through 13 TV appearances, several meetings and one press conference, everything comes from memory. He never takes a note or refers to one. When his counterpart, James Baker, appears in the briefing room they share, the former Secretary of State brings aides, files and a bank of supplementary flags to solemnify his surroundings. Boies just shows up.

Before representing Gore, Boies had met the Vice President only once, back in 1988 at the Manhattan apartment of First Amendment lawyer Victor Kovner. More a vague Democrat than a fierce one, he rarely mentions George W. Bush in his statements, although he tells me he would never have represented the Texas Governor. "I believe in Gore's side, which is, Let's get an accurate count," he says. "I don't know about Gore as a campaigner, but here he has been reflective, thoughtful and searching for the right thing to do. I was surprised when he announced Tuesday night he was giving up any thought of changing an elector's vote. If this were simply up to me as a lawyer, I wouldn't give up anything."

Boies often works out of his hotel room, but he also goes over to a local law firm, where upwards of 20 lawyers for Gore have set up shop in a space designed for five. Amid the teetering chairs and snaking phone cords and cable wires, Boies perches, writing in longhand in an 8 1/2-by-11-in. notebook on his lap. Mildly dyslexic since childhood, he memorizes almost everything, so he need only read things once. Junior partners are warned never to tell him anything they aren't sure of, for he might pull it out of thin air months later in open court.

Joel Klein, former Assistant Attorney General for antitrust, hired Boies to litigate the government's case against Microsoft--despite the fact that he doesn't use a computer, not even for e-mail--because he believed Boies to be the best litigator in the country. Boies famously reduced Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, in a 20-hour deposition, to a hemming and hawing puddle, quibbling over the meaning of "concern" and "compete." How was Boies able to recall in court the exact wording of messages sent from one Microsoft executive to another? How did he keep every section of Florida's election code, down to the last subsection, straight in his head? No one really knows. Yale Law School professor emeritus Guido Calabresi remembers when Boies transferred from Northwestern University's law school (he was kicked out for having an affair with a professor's wife, who became the second of Boies' three wives): "He arrived speaking in original, thoughtful, fully formed paragraphs. He knew exactly what he was doing. Absolutely brilliant is not an exaggeration."

But quirky. At morning meetings during the Microsoft trial, Boies would arrive with a bag of bagels and eat only the insides of each, leaving the crusts piled on his plate--"as if a four-year-old had just had breakfast," recalls Klein. One of the youngest people ever made partner (at age 31) at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Boies became famous for successfully defending IBM against a massive antitrust suit. In another high-profile case, in the early 1980s, he defended CBS against General William Westmoreland's libel suit. Boies was so impressive that reporters took to humming the theme from Jaws whenever he rose to cross-examine a witness. Westmoreland, who dropped his claim, told Vanity Fair that he wouldn't have given up if he'd "had one [lawyer] like Boies." A few days before Thanksgiving 14 years ago, Boies was drafted to handle Texaco's appeal of a $10.6 billion judgment for interfering in Pennzoil's acquisition of Getty Oil. He devoured 30,000 pages of trial transcript between visits to the bedside of his mother, who was dying of brain cancer.

He won that case, but in 1997 Boies left Cravath after the firm refused to let him represent the New York Yankees in its antitrust suit against Major League Baseball. Cravath's longtime client Time Warner owns the Atlanta Braves, a defendant in the suit. Boies started his own firm, where three of his children are now among its 60 attorneys. He has burnished his reputation lately by breaking up an international vitamin cartel, being called in by a federal judge to handle a class action against Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses, and representing Napster in its fight against the record companies over copyright infringement.

He has made his reputation not by showboating on Geraldo but by reducing complex litigation to understandable stories, which he tells in his flat Midwestern tone. Boies likes the concrete. On Friday he introduced a developer of the Votamatic machine, William Rouverol, 83, to explain how his imperfect machine is more likely to produce dimpled chads in the vote for President than for other offices, because that column gets clogged by getting the most use and therefore harder to punch out cleanly as the day goes on. Boies took special delight in his statistician, a Yale professor resembling Professor Irwin Corey, who pointed out that the undervote in counties that used punch cards was five times as high as that in counties that used other methods. But Boies has also shown uncharacteristic passion in the election battle. Alarmed that "a mob stormed the canvassing board" in Miami to stop the count, he and Gore decided, in an 11 a.m. phone call on Friday, to file a challenge to the vote results after they are certified Sunday.

Though he's a guy who so hates getting up in the morning that his wife has to phone to make sure he hasn't slept through his wake-up call, Boies bounds through a day that begins at 5:30 with the three morning news shows, continues through legal and political strategy meetings and ends with an appearance on Nightline. At a dinner squeezed in after The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and before Larry King, he orders a hamburger with absolutely nothing on it, a fetish of the unapologetic red-meat eater who doesn't want so much as a sprig of parsley between the bun and the burger. While he likes chilled Mumm champagne and gourmet cuisine on bike trips in Provence with his family, he can live for days on pretzels and Diet Coke. When he finds out the restaurant has his favorite dessert, chocolate ice cream, he digs into it with as much relish as if Miami-Dade had just started counting again.


Cover Date: December 4, 2000



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