TIME profile from June 1998

Plato Cacheris

The Courtroom Impressario

By John Cloud

(TIME, June 15) -- In the real world, you know you've made it when you can build a tennis court in your backyard. In Washington you know you've made it when you can chuckle that the tennis court is named after a former U.S. Attorney General who hired you as his lawyer. As a child, Plato Cacheris clung to a second-generation immigrant's dream of becoming ambassador to his father's Greek homeland. But the influence he has amassed over the past four decades as a defense attorney exceeds that of most mere government appointees.

Cacheris is an uber-lawyer, the guy you want on speed dial when a prosecutor is threatening you on the other line. He has had a role in nearly every scandal since Watergate, when he defended Attorney General John Mitchell (whose fee helped build Cacheris' tennis court). According to Washingtonian magazine, when CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames saw that Cacheris had agreed to be his court-appointed attorney, Ames beamed, "I was wondering what I was going to do for a lawyer. And I get Plato Cacheris!" Cacheris, 69, loves to be a player and earlier this year joked about being only on the sidelines in the Lewinsky matter. "The President and Vernon Jordan are already taken," he joked, when explaining why he agreed to represent Jordan's chauffeur.

Though he dines at the Palm and wears London-tailored Tasmanian-wool suits (at $1,500 a pop, each is paid for with about three hours of his billed legal time), Cacheris' homelife has always been more prosaic. He and his wife Ethel--they have been married nearly 43 years--frequently revisit his roots on trips to Greece. His father Christos had only a sixth-grade education, and as a teenager Plato flipped burgers at his dad's restaurants. After a stint in the Marines, straight-arrow Cacheris worked as a Justice Department prosecutor helping Attorney General Robert Kennedy target the Mob.

Experience on both sides of the courtroom is a hallmark of the D.C. superlawyer. It gives Cacheris an appreciation for his adversaries' tactics. It also means he might invite foes over for tennis after a grueling case. Cacheris is known to be friendly with several prosecutors in town, though Kenneth Starr is not among them. Like William Ginsburg, Cacheris can also be chummy with reporters; unlike Ginsburg, his comments to them are more wise than wise-ass. When the New York Times reminded Cacheris last week that Ginsburg had even discussed the infant Monica Lewinsky's "polkehs" (her baby-fat thighs), Cacheris retorted, "Spare me."

Cacheris can play hardball, but he wraps his barbs in gentlemanly tones. "He can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip," says John Moscow of the Manhattan district attorney's office. Like all good lawyers, Cacheris knows that in many cases, a deal beats a court fight hands down. Beneficiaries of his bargaining skills include Fawn Hall, the former secretary to Oliver North who won immunity in exchange for testimony, and Ames, who faced a possible death sentence until Cacheris secured a life-in-prison plea bargain. But Cacheris is also a natural in the courtroom, "a maestro," as a fellow lawyer puts it, who cross-examines with laserlike ferocity and charms the jury with wit. ("My client is a fool, an ass, a boor!" he once thundered. "But he is not a cold-blooded strangler.") If he and Jacob Stein fail to win immunity for Lewinsky and she ends up in court, the two will probably split the role of courtroom defender--with Cacheris coming off more the showman. Even on the tennis court, he's the exhibitionist of the pair. "He wears white ducks, and I wear shorts," Cacheris notes. "My legs are better."

--Reported by Margaret Carlson and John F. Dickerson/Washington